Director Andrey Zvyagintsev Cast Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Aleksey Serebryakov Russia 2014, 2h20m, 15
In his four feature filmography to date, the weighty, metaphysical narratives of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s films have all been doused in biblical symbolism, even extending to their names; of his directorial efforts, which include The Return (2003) and The Banishment (2007), only Elena (2011) has a title without overt religious connotation. 2014 effort Leviathan takes this preoccupation to its greatest extreme yet, with a story seemingly modelled on the Book of Job and a name shared with an underwater behemoth extensively described in that same Old Testament text to demonstrate God’s power over even the most unfathomable, terrifying parts of nature. (It’s not the first film with that title, what with 2012’s sensory overload documentary set around a fishing boat, and a 1989 Hollywood movie that did include a literal sea monster.)
In the Bible, Job is a prosperous family man continuously beset with horrible disasters that rob him of the things he holds dear, his health, wealth, and children among them. The inspiration of the story on Leviathan’s narrative is relatively well disguised, with only some late comments by a local priest character spotlighting it during the film itself, but for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the biblical story, the connections between the two narratives make a lot of sense upon post-viewing reflection. In Leviathan, set on the shores of the Barents Sea in contemporary Russia rather than the Bible’s Land of Uz, the Job stand-in is Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov), whose home, family, and general well-being are threatened by the machinations of more powerful forces, be they recognisable avatars like the might of the Russian state, as courtesy of mayor Vadim (Roman Maydanov), or more abstract factors like plain cruel fate and the often fickle nature of human hearts.
In his Cannes report on the film for
The Playlist, critic Oliver Lyttelton goes as far as to suggest that Leviathan has “an almost Coen-ish streak to it. Like A Serious Man, it’s a darkly comic tale of a flawed man being put through the grinder.”1 The dark comedy streak of Zvyagintsev’s sprawling drama operates at an even more pitch-black register than the Coen brothers on their grimmer days, and with a greater proclivity for baring “political fangs.”2 For while the film operates on that aforementioned level of biblical interpretation, one can read into it being predominantly about the corruption of the current Russian regime (Vadim has a framed portrait of Vladimir Putin on his wall) and, as Lyttelton describes it, “the increasingly insidious influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on the nation’s leaders.”3
In another review, for
The Hollywood Reporter, critic Leslie Felperin points out that the film’s title, tone, and political preoccupations can be viewed as an ironic “reference to Thomas Hobbes’s book Leviathan in which the titular creature stands for the state.”4 That book, first published in 1651, concerns the structure of society and government, and is considered one of the most influential texts among those originating during the Age of Enlightenment that addressed and questioned the legitimacy of the state’s authority over an individual. The funny twist, in regards to the film’s production, is that it was made with financial support from the Russian Ministry of Culture, and has since been selected as Russia’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the next Academy Awards ceremony in February 2015. Few other filmmakers that bite the hand that feeds receive quite the same treatment.
Leviathan isn’t solely about Russia, but instead “the destiny of humankind in the world”.5 He has suggested his screenplay was initially inspired by American automobile muffler repair shop owner Marvin Heemeyer, who went on a rampage in Colorado in 2004 and then killed himself, based on outrage over a zoning dispute. In an interview with film critic Carmen Gray for The Calvert Journal, a daily website guide on contemporary Russian culture, the director cites this incident as a universal one, as “the story of someone who had a direct clash with power.”6 When questioned about the specifically Russian context of his screenplay, however, he concedes “there won’t be many people in Russia who see the film and deny that it’s true... While the idea is based on a particular story in America, as soon as it was brought to our territory it acquired certain details that managed to pass on the message about our own circumstances very precisely.”7 Maybe the Russian government is being a little more lax with biting political critique from artists with an already established foothold in international markets, as The Return and Elena are among the more successful filmmaking exports from the region in the last decade or so.
Perhaps it’s the prizes already thrown Leviathan‘s way that’s caused its country’s Oscars push, particularly the Best Screenplay award bestowed upon Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Nerin at this past May’s Cannes Film Festival. Though it has its allusions to other existing material, it proves an unpredictable work in many ways. One suspects from the beginning that this is a tale that won’t end well, but the screenplay continuously proves crafty in shifting its allegiances and players of focus depending on the decisions of its characters, some of which come out of the blue and prove as much of a blind side to the viewer as they do to Kolya or whoever else Zvyagintsev has chosen to centre his attention on in a given stretch of the film. It’s an appropriate approach for a story about being the apparent target of the brunt of the universe’s wrath: just as Kolya’s existence is shaken, so too do we, as the observers of the suffering, struggle to keep our own bearings with the proceedings.
Josh Slater-Williams Freelance writer
November 2014 KEEP YOUR LOVE OF CINEMA ALIVE FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS
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1 Oliver Lyttelton (2014), ‘Cannes Review: Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Searing, Powerful Russian Epic Leviathan’, The Playlist, 23rd May 2014, http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/cannes-review-andrei-zvyagintsevs-searing-powerful-russian-epic-leviathan-20140523 [Accessed 2 November 2014].
4 Leslie Felperin (2014), ‘Leviathan: Cannes Review’, The Hollywood Reporter, 22nd May 2014, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/leviathan-cannes-review-706722 [Accessed 3 November 2014].
5 Carmen Gray (2014), ‘Breaking the waves: Andrey Zvyaginstev on his award-winning film Leviathan’, The Calvert Journal, 3rd November 2014, http://calvertjournal.com/articles/show/3315/russian-film-director-andrey-zvyaginstev-leviathan [Accessed 4 November 2014].
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