Andrey Zvyaginstev’s films are often characterised by a recurring focus on the breakdown of family values. Whilst Leviathan (2014) contains the same dense metaphysical imagery and spiritual philosophising of his previous work, here his layered social criticism is more solidified, illuminating a world governed by quarrelsome and belligerent men and the tragic human cost of their actions. A loose adaptation of The Book of Job woven around the real life story of an American family whose property came under threat from a crooked mayor, events take place in the Northern Russian province of Murmansk Oblast, an inhospitable land that flourished during the industrial expansion of the Soviet era.
It’s a region regularly presented as a modern equivalent wild west – a promised land of natural riches, where corruption looms ominously on the horizon. Our guide in this world is car mechanic Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov). He lives with his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) in a family-built property situated on a prime piece of real estate. Sadly, the town’s serpentine mayor Vadim (Madyanov) is keen to get his mucky hands on the land to build his own luxury dacha, and uses his influence to slap a compulsory purchase order on Kolia. Unwilling to relinquish his home without giving Vadim some kind of fight, Kolia calls in his old army buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a big shot lawyer living in Moscow.
Although they possess enough incriminating evidence to lock Vadim away for life, the cogs and gears of congress endure, and Dmitri’s presence only complicates the issue further. In all good monster movies the antagonist hides in the shadows, prowling the peripheries of your subconscious. In Leviathan the monster is hidden in plain sight, found on every street corner, in every phase of the bureaucratic process – an awe-inducing metaphor for greed and the unfathomable force of corruption present within the Russian state. We are immersed in Kolia’s fragile domestic dynamic whilst surreptitiously fashioning a vivid, yet emotionally gruelling portrait of a dispassionate world. Employing the rich symbolism and weighty metaphors of an ambitious novel within an intimate family drama imparts a solemn sense of belonging that only intensifies the gut-wrenching meditation on power and social inequality. However, despite the film’s absence of any optimism, Leviathan is veiled in a crude approximation of beauty thanks to Phillip Glass’s rousing symphony and the tenebrous cinematography of Mikhail Kirchman that is at once anatomical, and at the same time deeply poetic.
Leviathan employs the lyrical language of cinema to annunciate its abstract, yet highly symbolic opprobrium of society. The film’s major dramatic scenes are never shown to the viewer, rather, Zvyaginstev shocks the audience’s imagination, challenging preconceived notions of morality and heightening the film’s emotional impact. As the vodka consumption rises exponentially to the enmity between state and society (evoking some hilarious scenes of drunken confrontations) the film spirals towards an inescapable downbeat conclusion. Closing with a series of images as powerful and startling as the final scenes of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), Zvyaginstev plaintively augments the nuances of everyday life against the sweeping tides of bureaucracy – a profoundly gripping masterpiece that cements Zvyaginstev position as one of today’s greatest living directors.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble