The 2014 drama film Leviathan, directed and written by Andrey Zvyagintsev, brings a Russian landscape to life in a bureaucratic battle between a fisherman and the corrupt mayor of his town. The film’s wide-open scenic landscape seems to play a central role—from the cliffs near the Barents Sea, to the bones of a washed-up whale, to Kolya’s family home, and finally to the run-down church used as a hangout by local boys including Kolya’s son, Roma. All of these locations outwardly demonstrate the isolation and distance felt by our family, as they are far away from the town with not many neighbors and almost swept under the rug by the town’s mayor. The whale bones could be an additional sign of decay and gradual loss felt by Kolya, or the bones could be a symbol of helplessness, particularly with his alcoholism and imprisonment later on in the film. The story revolves around Nikolay ‘Kolya’ (Aleksey Serebryakov) who lives in his ancestral home, with his wife and son. He can be found occasionally doing car repair for acquaintances, and moderately drinking early in the film. We are introduced to Kolya as the subject of an arduous legal battle to keep his property— a property he helped construct and where he is passionately rooted. The film portrays Kolya as the common man who is wrapped up in the bureaucracy of his country. To demonstrate this common man idea even further, Zvyaginstev has Kolya arrested for simply questioning a crooked police officer’s motives, which shows a definite power imbalance between authority and people. The film seems to criticize the current state of Russia’s bureaucracy and the country’s political corruption by using Kolya as an example.
As we immerse ourselves in this world, and Kolya is still in jail somewhere, we begin to see Kolya’s wife Lilya as unfaithful. She becomes intimate with Kolya’s loyal friend Dmitry (the lawyer helping him with his case), which is a bit of dramatic irony that is left to us until the picnic scene when everything is revealed to Kolya. The family is an interesting subject in the film because the turbulence caused by this extramarital affair is a major point. Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), and Kolya’s wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) both are a catalyst in Kolya’s gradual downfall, and Roma’s emotional outbursts. The extramarital affair comes to its climax when the two are caught in their intimacy by Roma. During the picnic (one of the police officer’s birthday parties) Roma sees his new mother violating her vows to Koyla. For this excursion, some friends including Kolya and his family go near the sea to drink vodka, eat, and shoot their rifles. They are interrupted when one young boy comes running to tell his parents about Roma bursting into tears when seeing an intimate Dmitry and Lilya. Kolya reacts with violence off-screen and we see both Dmitry and Lilya with bruises in scenes after this trip. Through these descriptions, one can tell that Leviathan is incredibly dramatic and immersive. I could not help empathizing with Kolya’s plight throughout the film, and I found there to be a significant distaste for the current bureaucratic processes in the imaginary Russian town (mirroring real-life Russia). A memorable moment demonstrating the distaste of Russian politics was when one of the police officers used posters of former Soviet and Russian leaders for targets in a mock gun range during the picnic. Some characters question the absence of current leaders as targets, but it is stated that time should pass before the current leaders are used as targets— time will tell if these leaders deserve their place in a firing range. The film portrays the Russian political past as not favorable in the eyes of the characters, which shows little change with the corruption shown by the mayor.
The film depicts the mayor (Roman Madyanov) as somewhat untouchable, even though Dmitry threatens him with detailed notes of the corruption he has taken part in, which is left ambiguous to the viewer. Throughout the film, the mayor seems rather threatening, but also shows a weakness in his paranoia about his upcoming reelection bid. In a few scenes, the mayor confides to a priest or church leader, who reassures him that he should continue using his power over others and sacrificing himself to God. The film paints religion and power to be tied together, particularly in scenes with the mayor confiding in the priest. When the mayor is shown the documents that would reveal the corruption by Dmitry, I couldn’t help feeling excitement towards the possibility of Kolya defeating the mayor. However, there is no victory for Kolya because after Lilya is shamed by Roma about her extramarital affair after she returns to the house, she commits suicide. Dmitry is also beaten, and threatened by the mayor’s hired thugs and goes back to Moscow without another word. Lilya’s suicide is shown offscreen but is incredible in the dramatic irony as we are the only ones to witness her contemplation near the cliffs. After learning of his wife’s death, Kolya becomes an alcoholic and is mistaken for his wife’s killer. Finally, he is imprisoned with absolutely no justice while the mayor chuckles at the thought of Kolya “getting what he deserves” for meddling in his affairs and not submitting. Roma is taken in by some family friends as foster parents, and we watch heavy machinery destroy the ancestral home. I was shocked at how depressing the film is, and the resolution left me wondering about the future for Kolya, his 20-year prison sentence, and his son. As a whole, the film depicts Kolya as a blip in the fabric of Russian society, with corruption and greed winning over the just common man. In the end, Zvyagintsev leaves us with a new cathedral built over Kolya’s land.
As I said before, the landscape of the film really shines. I found myself more immersed in the film due to its cinematography and its establishing shots. The depiction of greed and corruption is another reason to appreciate the film, with an ending that leaves the viewer anticipating justice for Kolya, while knowing that he will most likely have to serve that sentence without retribution. The film also draws upon the book of Job, with Kolya like Job in the story— Kolya, a just person, unfairly suffers. On the whole, the film very much moved me in a way that I haven’t felt in a very long time. I empathize with most characters in the film, and found a few moments of their humor to really help alleviate the depressing mood. When Kolya seeks religious advice after his wife dies, we really connect to his loss in a profound way. I will always remember Roma’s presence in the film, and the loss of his family. The way the writer and director handled dramatic events, tragedy, and modern political problems makes Leviathan a must-watch. If you find yourself wanting a modern look at Russian tragedy, I can’t recommend Leviathan enough. The film is worth revisiting as it plays into the idea that Russian art is, for the most part, depressing.
3.65 out of 5
— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.
Christian is a Junior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.” Additionally, his poem “The Japanese Photography is Covered in Dust” is forthcoming from City Brink Magazine. In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavettes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.