Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Screenwriter: Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin
Runtime: 140 mins
Australian release date: 26 March 2015
Previewed at: Verona Cinema, Paddington, Sydney, on 19 February 2015
The film poster for Leviathan features a giant, bleached whale’s skeleton lying abandoned on a wind swept beach along the Barents Sea coast in Russia. To the right is the figure of a young man crouching on a large rock looking at the monumental decay before him - a perfect metaphor for the current state of Russia? The director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose previous features Elena and The Return have both been screened in Australia, has once again created another film described by many as a ‘masterpiece’. It was Russia’s selection for Best Foreign Film at the 2014 Oscars but missed out to the Polish entrant, Ida; however, it did win the Golden Globe in the same category.
Leviathan opens with a car journey through a bleak, monochromatic landscape, where local mechanic Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is driving along with an old lawyer friend from Moscow, Dmitry (Vladimir Vdovichenkov, who Australian audiences may recognise from Fernando Meirelles’ 360). Dmitry is in town to unearth some incriminating evidence to use in a battle against the corrupt local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who is trying to snatch Kolya’s highly desirable property from his grasp. Kolya lives in a ramshackle house with his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), the result of a previous marriage. There is a fairly acrimonious relationship between Lilya and Roma and the arrival of Dmitry just complicates things even further.
As the plot unfolds, Zvyagintsev takes his audience on a journey into the bowels of corruption. Kolya sees the injustice of the position he’s been placed in and he knows it isn’t right. But the mayor has the system on his side. When Kolya seeks advice from the priest of the local Orthodox Church, he learns that it is unreservedly complicit in the crimes of the state or, at the very least, prepared to go along with them. After all, this is Putin’s Russia, where the powers that be hold the country to ransom and the likes of Kolya have little chance of winning any fight against a crooked government official.
The fact he and Dmitry appear to constantly drown themselves in vodka before and after any activity (along with pretty much everybody else in town) seems almost understandable. In a particularly telling scene, we join Kolya and a group of drunken locals on a shooting party, complete with a Kalashnikov. Their targets are framed photos of past Russian leaders, but not one of Putin. Why? “It’s too early for current ones”, says one of the party. In fact, there is only a brief shot of a Putin portrait in one scene and an even briefer image of the words ‘Pussy Riot’ on a TV screen in the background of another. However, although brief, these images aptly represent the extremes of the political landscape in modern Russia.
The stark scenery adds to the tense, foreboding mood of the film and there are moments of dark humour which also add to the grim situation. Together with Philip Glass’s haunting score and the breathtaking cinematography by Mikhail Krichman’s (who worked with Zvyagintsev on Elena), you remain riveted for 140 minutes even as you journey through this oppressive scenario. This is provocative film-making at its best and a must for anyone interested in the political state of Russia today.
It should be noted though that Kolya’s is a universal challenge and, in fact, the genesis of the script came from the true story of a small landowner battling city hall in Colorado. As director Zvyagintsev states, “I am deeply convinced that, whatever society each and everyone of us lives in, from the most developed to the most archaic, we will all be faced one day with the following alternative: either live as a slave or live as a free man. And if we naively think that there must be a kind of state power that can free us from that choice, we are seriously mistaken. In the life of every man, there comes a time when one is faced with the system, with the “world”, and must stand up for his sense of justice, his sense of God on Earth”.