PRINT January 2015


Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan

Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 141 minutes. Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev).

RUSSIAN DIRECTOR Andrey Zvyagintsev made an auspicious debut in 2003 with The Return, a film about the primal struggle of a father, returned from a long, unidentified war, to assume authority over his two adolescent, none too welcoming sons. The film’s dark biblical and mythic resonances, less blatant in Zvyagintsev’s subsequent films—The Banishment (2007) and Elena (2011)—are in full force in Leviathan, his latest work. Though it’s not exactly Long Day’s Journey into Night, lots of alcohol is consumed in Leviathan—vodka, to be exact. As in O’Neill’s play, the more we learn about the characters and their circumstances, the more this seems understandable. Kolya, who runs an auto-repair shop, lives in a small, economically depressed fishing village with his sullen wife, Lilya, and his angry teenage son, Roma.

Though in the first long shot their warmly lit house seems welcoming, it is in fact shabby and ill kept. This does not discourage the corrupt mayor, Vadim Shelevyat, from bullying Kolya into selling house and land cheap. Vadim not only gets court officials and hooligans to do his bidding but has the blessings of the local metropolitan. Kolya’s friend Dmitri, a slick lawyer from Moscow with party connections, arrives to help, but his efforts to blackmail Vadim backfire; he is beaten by thugs and nearly murdered before returning to Moscow in shame. Before that, he sleeps with Lilya, who is torn between running off with him and staying with her alcoholic husband and the stepson who hates her. In despair, she is last seen presumably about to throw herself into the sea, a point left ambiguous. Kolya is arrested and imprisoned for her suspected murder, and Roma faces possible adoption by the state. The coup de grace of this virtual erasure of a family is the assaultive surge of a huge bulldozer, its open maw and steel teeth smashing into Kolya’s house, sweeping aside walls, ceilings, furniture, kitchenware, and books as so much debris. This ultimate triumph of the system over the little guy demolishes any pretense of a social contract between the individual and the state, as envisioned in Hobbes’s Leviathan and alluded to in the film’s title.

Zvyagintsev neither romanticizes his defeated characters nor demonizes their nemeses, and he is well served by fine actors. Aleksey Serebryakov is a physically imposing Kolya, his volatility on the verge of eruption convincing even in the face of his increasing vulnerability. Elena Liadova’s Lilya is affecting, though she has little to do but appear beaten and morose in a role that is woefully underwritten. Vladimir Vdovichenkov’s initial behavior as Dmitri seems inconsistent with the smarmy threats he makes to the mayor, who, as played by Roman Madianov, conveys more energy and life than his stereotype warrants.

In a picnic sequence midway through the film, framed photographs of Russia’s former leaders are used for target practice, suggesting that Vladimir Putin is just the latest in a line of tyrannical public “servants.” But if the film aims to indict a contemporary Russia gripped by oligarchs, Russian Orthodox patriarchs, and corrupt officials, its sociopolitical bite is somewhat defanged by Zvyagintsev’s grander ambitions. Like The Return, Leviathan—which won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes last year—teeters between the immediacies of a compelling narrative and a thematic reach that threatens to overtax its modest virtues. This is telegraphed in the opening shots, which, not surprisingly, are reprised at the end: a turbulent sea crashes against daunting cliffs, followed by images of shipwrecks strewn on the shore, all testifying to the triumph of nature and time over the paltry aspirations of men. To make the idea thunderously clear, it is further echoed by one of those gravitas-inducing Philip Glass scores. Thereafter, every individual, political, social, and religious gesture is engulfed by spectacular but ominous wide-screen vistas (magnificently shot by Mikhail Krichman) auguring imminent extinction. Even the film’s actual leviathans serve this atmosphere—not only the immense skeletal carcass on the shore, along with the shipwrecks, but the one Lilya glimpses from cliff’s edge undulating in the sea below—less a symbol of the life force than an omen of gloom.

If the plights of Zvyagintsev’s characters are oddly unmoving, it may be because the situations that prompt them pale in comparison with the cosmic hopelessness that hovers over everything. If all human endeavors, good or bad, are equally doomed, then it seems as pointless to fault Kolya for his alcoholic stupors and chauvinistic tantrums (as if things would change if he were different) as it would be to curse Vadim’s greed and abuse of power, to sneer at Dmitri’s misuse of his profession, or to frown at the metropolitan’s hypocrisies. Everyone is flawed, and, in a perversion of the notion of a common humanity, everyone drinks. As each turn of fate induces another level of abjection, as though life were nothing but a malevolent matryoshka doll, we can only helplessly look on. We may wonder, as Kolya does, why his life has been so beleaguered, and feel equally uncomforted by the local priest’s response that Job also suffered misery upon misery in God’s endless test of man’s faith. But if the barrenness of the priest’s succor is intended as a swipe at the Bible, it is hardly counteracted by Zvyagintsev’s own vision.

Leviathan is currently playing at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York.

Tony Pipolo is a frequent contributor to Artforum.