Russia (2014) Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev
Over the past decade Andrey Zvyagintsev has quietly stepped up to the forefront of the Russian film industry with his sombre but powerful human nature dramas, set largely around the family unit. His latest work Leviathan continues this trend but with the added difference of a broader central story examining the darker side of political corruption in Putin’s Russia – ironically based on a real life incident that occurred in the US.
In the coastal town of Pribrezhny hot-headed Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov) and his family, second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and delinquent teen son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), are being threatened by the mayor Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov) who wants to repossess their land, resorting to force after Kolya refused. To help fight his case, Kolya calls upon his old army friend Dmitri Seleznyov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a lawyer in Moscow. When Vadim refuses to co-operate officially Dimitri is forced to fight fire with fire, but this only brings further misfortune for Kolya and his family.
Zvyagintsev’s tale has many roots in the Bible – specifically the Book of Job and its themes of the good being punished while sinners are rewarded – which dominates the second half of this film, while the initial small time David vs. Governmental Goliath storyline is inspired by a source a little more down to earth. In 2004 American Marvin Heemeyer was in dispute with the local authorities in Colorado over a zoning issue which affected his car repair shop. In protest Heemeyer beefed up a bulldozer and wrecked the entire city hall, the mayor’s house and other main buildings before shooting himself.
This film isn’t quite as gung ho in depicting the main protagonist’s retaliation but it does descend into desperate tragedy as the after effects of this defiance takes its toll on Kolya and his family. The translocation of this incident from the US to Russia is a daring one but for many a necessary and pertinent one in exploring the high level corruption that exists in that country.
In Russia some have seen it as “Anti-Russian” and have accused Zvyagintsev of merely seeking the approval and bright lights of Hollywood – despite the film being partly funded by the Russian Ministry Of Culture! Others have leapt to the film’s defence, dismissing the knee jerk opposition to its criticism of their country, insisting it is an “honest” film.
Admittedly this isn’t a joyous film, the atmosphere rarely lifting above melancholy thanks to the ominous reminder of the bleak surroundings Kolya and family live in. Their evenings are spent eating meagre meals, downing copious amounts of vodka and smoking too many cigarettes. Teenage tearaway Roma is struggling at school and has the rebellious attitude to match, mirroring his father in many ways but subject to the “don’t do as I do, do as I tell you” maxim all parents instil in their children.
In complete contrast the corpulent Mayor Vadim has a shiny plush office, chauffeur driven limousines, and money to burn. He also has the entire city under this thumb, demonstrated all too pointedly in court as Kolya and Dimtiri launch their defence; the clerk rattles off, almost in one breath, a lengthy deposition basically saying they have listened to all arguments but Kolya had no case. This was before a word had even been spoken by anyone else! Backed into a corner Dimitri plays dirty and present Vadim with a dossier of his misdemeanours that will end his career. But you know what they say about “absolute power”…
Whatever stories we have heard via the media of the imbalance of the wealth and the treatment of the poor at the hands of the Russian authorities, Leviathan goes to great lengths to corroborate them, but Zvyagintsev goes a step further by looking at the fall out and how those at the bottom of the totem have nothing in the way of a safety net for when the floor is gone from beneath their feet. The focus switches to dour melodrama to chart the downfall of the family, further painting a sobering and damning indictment of the judicial system, resulting in acts of hypocrisy, duplicity and of course flagrant abuse of power.
The austere yet picturesque setting of Pribrezhny add so much to the poignancy and effect of the film’s messages – not that they would have been able to film this in Moscow anyway – which allows Zvyagintsev to capture some truly gorgeous shots to illustrate the pain and suffering of the cast. A memorable one shows a tearful young Roma sitting on a rock next to the skeleton of a beached blue whale, the empty husk symbolic of the boy’s collapsing home life and, shortly after, his actual home, which could also be extended to the plight of the poor in Russia in general.
In a film of such grittiness and social realism you need a cast who are not too glamorous but photograph well, and of course can act, and Zvyagintsev picked a superb group of actors to bring his tragic characters alive. It’s a large cast list but everyone, no matter how small, has an integral part to play in the story and while some critics claims this was an unfair and erroneous depiction of rural Russian folk, others had suggested it was accurate.
The final scene of this film shows a priest conducting a sermon about the importance of truth and how those who abuse or distort it will be found out – all taking place in a new church, built on land acquired through malfeasance, bullying, the destruction of a family and, of course, lies. Corruption really does go all the way to the top it would seem.
Leviathan is an incredibly important and deeply affecting work, bold in its messages and its challenging of Russian authority. It is bleak and unflinching in its stark and unflattering depictions but hugely rewarding in its universal resonance and scope for human empathy.