This is my review of Leviathan [DVD].
One of the most striking scenes in this visually beautiful film is the skeleton of a huge whale cast up on the north Russian beach. “Leviathan”, whether defined as a sea monster or Hobbesian autocratic state, serves as a metaphor for a deeply corrupt Russia where bribes oil the wheels of exchange and “might is right”.
Kolya, a hard-drinking, chauvinistic rough diamond, but at heart a decent man, tries to buck the trend by using the law to foil the crooked local mayor Vadim’s designs on the property built by his family on the shore of the bleakly beautiful coastline. Kolya enlists the support of Dimitri, a suave former army friend turned Moscow lawyer, but unused to the ways of the wild north, where legal procedures can be all too easily subverted, and brute force is always the default position, Dimitri proves no match for Vadim, who when sober proves wily and ruthless.
In an unrelenting succession of trials and tribulations, Kolya is all too obviously a modern-day Job. At 141 minutes the film is far too long, but is worth watching on a number of counts. In addition to some humorous moments to leaven the anguish, the acting is strong and realistic, giving what feels like an authentic impression of life in off-the-beaten-track, rural small-town Russia where hardship takes many forms: coping with harsh weather, limited opportunities – the only source of employment for Kolya’s incongruously beautiful young second wife being the fish factory -, oppressive bureaucracy, the lack of democracy, since Communism has been replaced by an authoritarian capitalism, and the all-pervasive corruption, permeating even the law courts where justice is a mockery and the recently revived Orthodox Church. Ironically, Vadim is deeply devout when sober, fraternising with the cynical self-serving local bishop Grishko.
It is hardly surprising that everyone seems to resort to vodka on the smallest pretext, be it to relax with friends, or to drown one’s sorrows alone. Stoical acceptance or resignation are the usual reaction to setbacks, punctuated with occasional bursts of destructive anger.
Perhaps the most intriguing twist is that the film did not baulk at making a harsh attack on the Russian regime, despite receiving a hefty subsidy from the Ministry of Culture. If it is the case that the director Zvyagintsev was forced to make some changes, I cannot imagine how hard-hitting the initial version was. Yet, having noted its success at Cannes, the Russian powers that be went on to nominate if as their foreign-language Oscar submission