Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is the sort of drama that’s also densely allegorical. While the characters and situations have some specificity to them, they’re all part of a larger commentary on Russia. The targets are dizzying: Zvyagintsev critiques bureaucracy, corruption, provincial life, urban life, Putinism, youthful apathy, and drinking culture (to name a few). The only reason Leviathan does not feel bloated is because it also happens to be funny. The director and his co-screenwriter Oleg Negin have sympathy for their characters, even the boorish ones, and there is affection in the way the camera listens to them talk and argue. Its hero may feel like he has the worst luck in the world, yet the film looks to other, more earthly causes that are beyond his control.
There is a lengthy prologue before we hear any characters speak. Leviathan takes place in a small coastal town, and the silent opening minutes help establish a specific mood. This is a part of Russia where everything moves slowly, no one is cosmopolitan, and modernity barely ekes into life (cell phones notwithstanding, parts of the film echo a Chekov play). The local handyman Kolia (Aleksey Serebryakov) picks up his friend Dmitry (Vladimir Vdovichenkov, handsome and European-looking) from the train station. They served in the military together, and now Dmitry is a big-shot Moscow lawyer. He’s there to represent Kolia in a dispute with the local Mayor (Roman Madyanov), who wants to bulldoze Kolia’s house in order to build a summer home. Dmitry also visits with Kolia’s wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). The hearing does not go well, so the vodka flows freely (it probably would no matter the outcome).
What makes Leviathan so fascinating is how it veers between extreme formality and debauched behavior. There is a lengthy scene where a judge reads her ruling in Kolia’s legal case, and she speaks so quickly that the subtitles can barely keep up. This is Kafkaesque, in a way, except Dmitry speaks about the legal proceedings as if they’re routine. Dmitry’s secret weapon is some dirt he has on the Mayor, and it until he reveals his hand, the Mayor acts like an absolute buffoon. There is a terrific scene where the Mayor is shithoused after a boozy dinner with a local priest, and has his driver take him to Kolia’s home. The Mayor throws his weight around, literally and metaphorically, until he nearly falls down, and the joke is that everyone treats inebriation as a fact of life, something that’s more celebrated than tolerated (the entire cast is full of convincing drunks). Coupled with a long picnic scene where Kolia and his friends drink vodka and shoot an AK47, Zvyagintsev has the patience to show how Russian leisure is unique.
Aside from arguments and character-developing scenes, Zvyagintsev keeps a lot of important plot details off-camera. For example, Dmitry refers to this damning secret secret about the Mayor, except we never learn what it is (the director shows the Mayor’s histrionics, while his underlings watch with a mix of patience and derision). There is an important sub-plot that leads to a rift between Kolia and Dmitry, and the climax happens while the camera points in the exact opposite direction from the action. At first this technique is frustrating, as if the director would rather not dig into the lives of his characters, yet this style of storytelling heightens the criticism and symbolism of the story. By denying the audience key details, there is a universal quality to Kolia’s plight. He’s that much more of an everyman when there’s an arbitrary sense of what befalls him.
Zvyagintsev’s direction is somewhat slight and impersonal, with long takes that aren’t voyeuristic, although it has a purpose: he envisions a Russia defined by unfair institutions, which can be nightmarish or paradise, depending on one’s station or whether they can game the system. Russia’s culture ministry has recently condemned Leviathan – a hilarious detail since the same ministry also supported the film – and it’s easy to see where they take issue. A portrait of Putin dominates a scene where the Mayor is at his most base, and the film is deeply skeptical of the state’s efficacy. Still, Zvyagintsev is an equal opportunity offender, the sort of humane director who takes issue with bureaucrats and hotheaded hicks like Kolia who do not do much to help their cause. This a film that takes no prisoners, but it’s only those in power who can do anything about it.
In interviews, Zvyagintsev explains that Leviathan is a modern update of the Book of Job. While parts of his film are about the limits of wisdom and piety, a religious allegory limits his ambition. His title is more revealing: it refers to a gigantic whale skeleton, one that rests on an abandoned seashore that Roma visits when he’s at his most desperate. With patient interest, the camera regards the whale and the abandoned ships the line the beach where Kolia and his beach live; these are totems of past, once revered, that now have no modern purpose. This is not the story of Kolia and his notion of God, exactly, and it’s instead about what happens when an ordinary man tries to make sense of an indifferent world, one that’s forgotten him. Because the man happens to be in Russia, a place defined in part by its contradictions, he is also an intriguing, sympathetic example of the country’s unique character.