On the northwest coast of Russia there are settlements where stubborn and resourceful human beings eke out a living, hauling fish from Arctic seas. The seashore is littered with the skeletons of whales and of wrecked fishing boats. Rocky crags rise right out of the sea. The vegetation is sparse but the landscape and coastline look dramatically beautiful in the perpetual half-light of the northern summer. The best movies of Andrey Tarkovsky tell stories of unimaginable human cruelty which play out against the backdrop of such staggeringly beautiful Russian landscapes; Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a story such as this, but without Tarkovsky’s mysticism. Everything that happens in this story is all too real and immediate.
The protagonist, Kolya, is the third generation of a family that has clung stubbornly to their home on this unforgiving coast. Kolya is a car mechanic and handyman living in the family house with his morose, utterly miserable teenage son, Roma, and his attractive second wife, Lilya. The house overlooks the picturesque town and inlet, and the town’s corrupt and bullying mayor Vadim wants that view for himself. Vadim has organised through the courts to forcibly purchase the land and house at a small fraction of its value, in order to build a fancy dacha for himself. Unable to wait for the court to rule, he turns up at Kolya’s house late one night, drunk and abusive, under the protection of his thuggish bodyguards, and tries to provoke a fight.
Kolya has asked an old army buddy, Dimitri, who is now a lawyer in Moscow, to help him fight the eviction through the courts. Dimitri’s strategy is to dig up some dirt on Vadim and his corrupt dealings, and to threaten to go public with it unless Vadim backs off. He drops the name of an important official in Moscow with whom he claims to be friends. It’s a dangerous game, provoking a man who has a Putin portrait on his desk, and Dimitri seems to have little idea of what he is setting in motion. ‘Grabbing him by the balls and tugging gently’ is how he explains it to Kolya.
The leviathan of the Old Testament was a gigantic sea-monster, threatening to tear human beings to pieces. We get a brief glimpse of a whale off the rocky coast, but it is no fearsome monster. The leviathan in this film is the Russian government and state, with all its corruption, its stony indifference to the fate of human beings, and its labyrinthine bureaucratic structures designed to grind them to dust. Even Vadim is fully conscious of the fact that while he is the beneficiary of the state’s power today, he may be its victim tomorrow.
At the hearing on Kolya’s house, the court secretary rattles off the judgment at an incredibly rapid speed, barely comprehensible; the unlucky complainant has taken up far too much of their valuable time already. Kolya and the lawyer go to file a complaint about the abusive behaviour of the mayor. They encounter a wall of refusal: no one in the office is authorised to receive their complaint, the ones with authority are absent, no one knows when they will return. Will the secretary acknowledge in writing that an attempt to lay a complaint was made? “No, I told you, no one is authorised to do that.” Every office is staffed by people practiced in the art of deflection. But when, in frustration, Kolya raises his voice, cops and officials suddenly appear out of the back rooms to manhandle and jail him.
If Vadim is the ugly, brutish face of the Russian state, the Orthodox priesthood is the refined, cultured face of that same machine. The bishop can hardly conceal his contempt for Vadim’s coarseness and mendacity, but sells him absolution nonetheless. As the crushing of Kolya nears its completion, the bishop delivers a grandiose and hypocritical sermon about the quest for truth. Vadim, in the congregation, whispers to his son, “God sees everything.” Meanwhile, a lower priest counsels Kolya to submit to his fate. “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fish hook?” he asks, quoting from the Book of Job. Even this lowly priest, it seems, knows about Kolya’s doomed attempt to blackmail the mayor.
The crushing effects of this state reach far beyond the offices, courtrooms, and jails, down into the fabric of social life, tearing apart the most intimate relations between people. Leviathan owes more than just its title to Hobbes’ famous treatise. As the leviathan closes its jaws on Kolya, we see human beings in the state of nature as Hobbes described: this is the war of all against all. All the friends that Kolya counted on to help him in his struggle turn out to have other designs and motives; even the most loyal of them are too weak and compromised to help. His fragile, vulnerable family shatters under the pressures: the tensions between Roma and his stepmother Lilya, two of the most blameless and helpless victims of the situation, the two people Kolya loves, are the first to reach breaking point.
In a wonderful scene that captures the mood of barely-contained desperation, a group of Kolya’s friends celebrate the birthday of one of them with a barbecue in a wild and desolate rocky valley, where the men drink large quantities of vodka and recklessly blast away with their guns at a line of bottles, leaving the children to wander away unsupervised. The tensions in this scene are so palpable, we can feel the impending disaster; it’s just a matter of guessing what form it will take. When it comes, it happens mostly out of sight, and is not what we are expecting.
It is ironic that a movie as bleak and as tragic as this should be made in Russia, a hundred years after the greatest and most promise-filled revolution in world history. The only signs in this film of that revolution are some brief moments of bitter, sarcastic humour. One of the friends at the barbecue brings out some new targets to shoot at: a set of portraits of former soviet leaders. Asked why there are no portraits of current leaders in the set, he responds that he is keeping them until they acquire some ‘historical perspective.’
There is no happy ending, no message of hope. When Kolya pleads for someone to look after his son, the cop says, “Don’t shit yourself. The state will take care of him.” This is a tragedy on a Shakespearean scale. It is, to use Hobbes’ description, “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Yet it is not a depressing film. It hardly touches on the contemporary political struggle (a few milliseconds of Pussy Riot on a TV screen in the background is about as close as it gets). But simply by laying bare the truth unflinchingly, no matter how grim that truth may be, no matter how impossible overcoming it may appear, the movie leaves us more confident than before – even strangely elated.
In Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky remarked about Soviet literature and art that during the period of the most intense Stalinist censorship and persecution of artists “The most eminent artists either commit suicide, or find their material in the remote past, or become silent.” Even Tarkovsky had to find his material in the remote past: his best film of all was Andrei Rublev, an historical epic about a fifteenth-century icon-painter – and even then, Tarkovsky fell foul of the censorship.
The release of Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a measure of what has changed in Russia – as well as what has not changed – in that a mainstream film director can once again shine the spotlight of artistic truth squarely on contemporary society, and get away with it. It would be hard to imagine a more effective cinematic critique of the Russian state than this film.