Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Written by: Oleg Negin & Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Starring: Aleksey Serebryakov (Koyla), Elena Lyadova (Lilya), Vladimir Vdovichenkov (Dmitriy Seleznyov), Roman Madyanov (Vadim, the Mayor), Sergey Pokhodaev (Roma), Sergey Bachurskiy (Stepanych), Anna Ukolova (Angela), Aleksey Rozin (Pacha).
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a modern day take on the Book of Job – about a man who finds out the hard way that you cannot fight City Hall. It is a film about the corruption that is deep seeded in Russia, how the government can pretty much do whatever they want, how they hide behind the Russian Orthodox Church, and the little guy doesn’t have a chance. Early in the film, there is a scene where the main character, Koyla (Aleksey Serebryakov), goes to court to try and fight a land grab by the local mayor. The mayor wants the land, for reasons that aren’t very clear, but clearly have no real reason accept that he can, and he wants it, and is using the courts to push through an eminent domain ruling, that will allow the city to buy the land at a reduced cost. Koyla is in the right, but it doesn’t matter. The court reporter reads the verdict – at rapid fire speed, but still in a monotone voice, and it becomes clear that everyone just wants to get the hell out of there – and that they never really took Koyla’s case seriously. This scene, like much of the rest of the movie, is tragic in its way – but also darkly funny. The verdict is read for so long that it becomes funny with how ridiculous it all is.
Leviathan is clearly an allegory – and quite clearly aimed at the heart of Russian society, where the little guy is going to get crushed by those with power, and they have no chance to win. The film was selected by Russian for the Foreign Language Film Oscar race this year – and it may well win – but has also been condemned by the Russian government, who do not like the way they are portrayed (obviously). The Mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov) is an obese, drunken, profane lout – who is corrupt, and everyone knows it, but no one can do anything about it. He is good friends with the high ups in the Russian Orthodox Church – and meets regularly with an ornately dressed member of the clergy, who tells him not to worry. Koyla has tried to fight Vadim and his land grab through proper channels – and failed – so now his friend and lawyer from Moscow, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), has told him it’s time to fight dirty. He has some dirt on the mayor, and goes to him to let him know that if he doesn’t pay Koyla a lot more for his land, that all his dirty laundry will be exposed. Vadim doesn’t seem all that worried – and the rest of the movie proves just why that is.
But as much as Leviathan is about modern day Russia, it is far from just a political screed, given to grandstanding and speechmaking – both of which are thankfully lacking in the film. It remains a very personal story about Koyla – and how much misery is visited upon him through the course of the movie. But Koyla is far from innocent in his own downfall – he’s as much of a drunk as Vadim is, and has a hair trigger temper that gets him into trouble. While the film may be a modern day take on The Book of Job – Koyla is hardly an innocent being tested from some largely purpose – he’s just a little guy getting screwed.
Zvyagintsev introduces some interesting plot developments in the second half of the film – many involving Koyla’s second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who remains the most fascinating and ambiguous character in the movie – because Zvyagintsev doesn’t attempt to explain all of her behavior – much of which is what sets off Koyla’s downfall. She is younger than Koyla – and a beauty – but she’s working a horrible job at the fish factory, and basically raising Koyla’s son teenage Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) with little help from him – since he’s always either drunk, angry or away – and sometimes all three at once. The movie is, in some ways, as much her tragedy as Koyla’s – and the film ends with a key mystery not finally resolved.
Leviathan is, in some ways, some fairly heavy going. The film clocks in and two hours and twenty minutes, and there are more misery in the movie than in most films you will see. But unlike some of Zvyagintsev’s previous films, which felt a little too heavy handed, a little too obsessed with all the misery, Leviathan finds the right mixture between that misery, its humanity, its allegorical content and some very dark humor. The film is a dark tragedy – but it also highlights the absurdity of it all. And it’s one of the best films of 2014.