Leviathan – Reviewed by David Turpin
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Alexei Serebriakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov, Sergey Pokhodaev
Leviathan is the fourth feature from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose startlingly accomplished first film, The Return, captured the attention of international audiences in 2003. While Zvyagintsev’s ominous and unforgettable debut was a tightly compressed narrative with just a handful of significant parts, Leviathan is a complex and lengthy drama, novelistic in scope, that attempts nothing less than a state of the nation address.
The story begins as Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov), together with his teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), faces eviction from his family home. The grotesque town mayor (Roman Madyanov) has unfairly claimed Kolia’s land for his own purposes, and Kolia’s attempt to strike back by enlisting the aid of a lawyer friend, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) only leads to further unforeseen disaster.
The film’s title invokes Thomas Hobbes 1651 work of political philosophy, which states that human lives are, by nature, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, but its most direct reference is to the Biblical Leviathan, an enormous sea monster alluded to in the Book of Job. The film’s relationship with the Book of Job goes beyond the image of the “big fish” that rules the ocean, though, as Job himself – a good man who faced seemingly unending bad fortune – provides the deeply ironic model for Kolia. The difference, of course, is that the beleaguered Kolia’s misfortunes are visited upon him not by God but by the corruption of present day Russian society. As the film progresses, what begins as a relatively small domestic drama expands exponentially into a monolithic indictment of a society rife with corruption at every level, from traffic police to the church. This is corruption that eats into the soul of a nation, and Zvyagintsev’s project here is not so much to exorcise it – the overriding pessimism of the film precludes such naive intentions – but to simply expose it.
The greatest surprise of Leviathan is how enjoyable it is, given its subject matter. The intimidating running time – close to two-and-a-half hours – passes swiftly. Each sequence unfolds with brilliantly measured pacing, and the film’s overall tragic design has a sense of inexorability without feeling schematic. The tragedy and pessimism of the film is also leavened by compassion, with the domestic scenes played between Serebriakov, Lyadova and Pokhodaev having a tactile sense of daily reality.
There are even flashes of humour, on a human scale that tempers the sombre tone and the stark, implacable grandeur of the photography. The film bears comparison with Andrei Tarkovsky, exhibiting a similar grave beauty to his last film, The Sacrifice (1986) – although Zvyagintsev’s allegorical intent is less pronounced than Tarkovsky’s. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Lyadova a particular stand-out in a difficult role, and Serebriakov animating the human, as well as the emblematic, dimensions of his character. The performance that will resonate most for many, though, is Madyanov’s mayor – by some distance the most repulsive screen villain of the year. The film’s final scene, in which his character is brought into sharp focus with a mordantly witty flourish, is likely to leave viewers outraged as well as exhilarated by the sheer force of Zvyagintsev’s filmmaking.