Film Review: Leviathan (2014) Russian Corruption Captured Magnificently in this classical Tragedy

Leviathan (2014)

Nb: This review contains some spoilers

My familiarity with Russian cinema has now doubled  up to two films  – firstly the outstanding, yet haunting 2nd World War film Come and See – and now this dramatic tragedy from director Andrey Zvagintsev. The film is a bleak satire on the endemic nature of corruption in Russian politics / society and from my tiny sample size, the Russians seem a dour lot. Though evidentally there is much reason for them to be so.  As the title suggests, the target of the film-makers eye is vast, yet it is shot intimately through the fate of Kolya (Alexeï Serebriakov), an ordinary Russian man who exemplifies Everyman traits in his proud masculinity – physically capable and productive – he lives in a remote coastal fishing village in his self-built house, with his own garage, wife and son.  Naturally, he also drinks an awful lot of vodka – never has a stereotype appeared quite so accurate – barely a scene passes without at least one person, across the status-spectrum imbibing the national drink with whole-hearted spirit.

The plot that serves as the allegory for broader institutional corruption centres around a dispute over the ownership of Kolya’s land. The local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), insists he has the right to buy the land at a set price, which is clearly dramatically undervalued according to Kolya who has asked an old friend, now a Moscow lawyer, Dimitri, to assist him fight his case. The film then divides its focus on Kolyas life, with friends and family and the battle to defeat the mayor. The latter plot initially seems promising thanks to the acquisition of material information that would easily threaten the position of the Mayor were it to be made public.  Inevitably events do not unfurl as Kolya would wish, as his life and relationships threaten to collapse amid violence, threats and betrayal. It is a bleak but exquisitely sharp depiction of the ominous degree of power held over the citizens by the state.

Whilst the narrative arc of man facing impossible battle versus state and widespread corruption is not new, it’s depiction here is still thoroughly well executed.  The film opens with beautiful photography that captures the vast essence of Russia itself, with wide shots of the grand expanse of mountain ranges and rural isolation.  At the beginning and close of the film it lingers over the long since dead fossil of a leviathan like creature on the beach.  The geography constantly places the characters as vulnerable contrasts with the might of the reach of the mountains, extending the metaphor of gargantuan power to the essence of the country itself.

From the opening scenes the spectre of corruption is made clear,  with a conversation with local policemen regarding Kolya fixing a car for his friend. Soon after, Kolya makes a remark to his friend that presumes corruption within the police force is normalised in this world – a minor mark but one that presages the greater fight to come. Politically the target is quite obvious.

Firstly on a shooting trip with Dimitri, family and friends, two of the characters draw out portraits of Russian leaders past – ready to be shot at, they discuss if they have Yeltzin and then ask if they have one more recent… although the allusion becomes more concrete in a later scene where we see Vadim in his office – hanging up on wall behind him is a portrait of a younger, but still undeniably balding Vladimir Putin. There can be no mistaking the association.

Vadim deploys violence and pulls strings to ensure his desires are achieved, with and his position is given a form of ‘validation’ through his discussions with the priest – representing the influence and status that the Russian Orthodox Church has over the population, it further strengthen’s Vadim’s stranglehold on the community. The priest advises him to fight back to assert his power in the community, and not to confess – because this would be weak – an attitude that many viewers might be inclined to impose upon their current commander-in-chief.

As Kolya seeks to overturn and appeal the court’s verdict, he inevitably meets with a bureacracy that is hostile and not without Orwellian oppression and Kafka-esque absurdity. The absence of anyone to speak to, and arbitrary arrests attest to this. I’m aware those references are becoming something of a cliche, yet having read both the echoes undoubtedly resonate in many a narrative that tackles related themes, as this film does too. The manner in which Kolya’s life begins to spiral out of control is not limited to direct political suppression from above, however,  but even from sources closer to home thanks to his old friend Dimitri, the Moscow professional who arrives and screws over an old friend in the provinces which sparks a further series of events that get a helpless Kolya into deeper trouble.

The mood is downcast, and the tone excoriating, yet it is never less than compulsive viewing, from the capturing of the isolation of the community to the menacing reality of political authority, all actors play their part superbly well.  To come back to the photography again, the director provides striking imagery of desolation, including the aforementioned coastal skeleton of the deceased giant to the fire-lit shots of the abandoned building Kolya’s son frequents with his friends; the perspective is all encompassing and all consuming and ought to be on anyone’s to watch list if they’ve not see it already. 9/10


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