Leviathan, written (along with Oleg Negin) and directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a tragic portrait of a family torn asunder by greed and the abuse of power. Like Ida, the Polish film that won this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Leviathan (also nominated for that category) has stirred up controversy in its home country, Russia.
Despite winning various European awards in 2014, and picking up a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, there was, as Ben Beaumont-Thomas noted in his piece for The Guardian, definite “resistance to the film from Russia’s cultural elite” who objected to the portrayal of Russian political figures.
After all, the term “Leviathan” has long been associated with the totalitarian state, which was the true face of what Thomas Hobbes had called the “commonwealth,” posing as a benevolent protector but growing large enough to absorb its enemies. Zvyagintsev draws on this analogy in his depiction of a greedy and thuggish mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who uses his far-reaching bureaucratic powers to seize the ancestral home of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) and his young wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), operators of a fish farm in the town of Pribrezhny. The opening shots place the house on the Baltic’s rocky coastline, establishing the family as caught between the forces of nature and a human-made political system.
Though a big fish himself, Vadim merely represents a larger one. As Jonathan Romney notes in his Oscar commentary for The Guardian, the film has been viewed by most critics as “unmistakably critical of the Putin regime.” The Russian President’s likeness appears once in the film in a framed photo that hangs on the wall of the mayor’s office, but there are also comic digs, such as the instance where Kolya and his friends decide to use other framed photos of Russian political figures for target practice (a scene that Romney discusses). Throughout, we see the strict authoritarian form of the Russian legal system, which ultimately undermines Kolya’s attempt to seek “justice”—a principle seemingly absent from this society. For example, he is detained and briefly incarcerated for simply dropping off a statement at a police station.
“Leviathan” might also refer to the Biblical dragon-like being whose defeat demonstrates the might of God. However, while “God” is invoked numerous times in the film, it is done so with great irony—another sore point for some Russians, who felt that the church was being slandered. “All power comes from God,” according to an Orthodox priest in the film. But the notion has a hypocritical ring to it, considering that the churchman functions as Vadim’s advisor and even implies that the two of them have the same goals—presumably political and social power. So the scene in which this man of God proudly alludes to the victory over “the many enemies of our faith and our Motherland” has likely struck home for the conservative religious figures that have actively backed Putin’s regime.
Religion comes in for further criticism when Kolya, a Job-like figure, asks a lower-ranking village priest, “Where’s your merciful God?” The devout man’s answer is hardly comforting: “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?… Nothing on earth is its equal. It is king over all that are proud.” Perhaps the priest sees this as an example of God’s “mysterious ways,” but it does nothing to resolve Kolya’s and Lilya’s misery.
Though Zvyagintsev provides a glimpse of another “Leviathan” in the form of a fully-fleshed whale that breaches in one striking scene, we also see a stark reminder of how the natural world is vulnerable to human endeavour when, at another point in the film, the camera pans the colossal skeleton of a whale. Perhaps the Leviathan has found “its equal.” Or perhaps, as Kolya’s friend Pascha declares, the human “is the most dangerous animal” of all.
Leviathan is currently showing at Cinema Excentris (f.s.t.) and CineForum (e.s.t.). Click here for times.
Adam Lawrence is a writer and lives in Montreal. His work has appeared in Quills: Canadian Poetry and in Vallum: Contemporary Poetry (forthcoming in 2015).