Living up to its title, there is an epic quality to Leviathan (2014), Andrey Zvyagintsev‘s tragic drama about corruption and impunity in modern Russia. Mechanic Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) and his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) are facing eviction from their home overlooking the Barents Sea in the north. It’s in a prime position and the miscreant mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), wants to bulldoze it and redevelop the land. Kolya enlists the help of his old friend Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a city lawyer, who arrives from Moscow with damning evidence of the mayor’s past misdemeanours. Leviathan starts as a simple tale of local corruption which serves to reflect the bigger picture in Russia.
As if to underline the point, a portrait of Putin hangs in the mayor‘s office and dominates one crucial scene where Dimitri, denied the opportunity to follow lawful procedures, attempts to blackmail Vadim. It’s remarkable that Leviathan passed Russia‘s harsh censorship laws to become its official entry at this year’s Academy Awards – it offers a searing indictment of a judiciary that rubber stamps preordained verdicts with no right of appeal, and the Church’s close ties to political power. The script by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, is packed full of telling detail. In the Book of Job, the leviathan was a huge sea creature, destructive and malevolent. Kolya finds his life turned upside down by the acts of crooked officials followed by a series of events that he cannot control and, finally, by love and betrayal.
Widespread corruption, Zvyagintsev suggests, is the monster Koyla cannot defeat. The rot sets in and infects everything including his closest relationships. Leviathan is an impressively structured beast. The rise and fall in dramatic tension is perfectly timed and the plot twists keep audiences guessing to the end. This is a memorable portrait of Russia today where ordinary citizens alternately celebrate their small successes or drown their despair with copious amounts of vodka. Although Zvyagintsev paints a bleak world where political corruption and casual violence are rife, and religion offers no consolation, there are also moments of surreal humour. The courtroom scene, where Koyla’s fate has already been decided, is delivered in rapid, expressionless prose. Then there are the numerous drunken exchanges, Vadim’s preoccupation with religious absolution (like Putin he has a priest who serves as his personal confessor) and a hunting trip, where Koyla and his friends use portraits of former leaders of the Soviet Union as target practice. The region’s stark landscape, beautifully captured in Mikhail Krichman’s dramatic cinematography, dominates the film’s opening and closing moments, and vividly evoke a harsh, unforgiving environment. However, there is a note of hope; Leviathan‘s central motif, the bones of a beached whale, suggest the circularity of life and death and remind us that all power is finite.