I am not going to pretend I know much of Russian film industry. Somebody once and passingly had mentioned the great Tarkovsky’s name but I was a child and I simply forgot. Hollywood happened to me at the age of sixteen and I didn’t begin to appreciate non-Hollywood masterpieces until much later. Then something else happened. I came to Russia. Christmas time I wrote a Russian New-year film special which never got published; it was enlightening though. It brought back childhood memories of my father talking fondly of Tarkovsky.
“He was Russian, wasn’t he?!” I gladly reminded myself.
And perhaps it should have come as no surprise to me that Andrey Zvyagintsev, the director of universally-acclaimed Leviathan (2014) is compared to Tarkovsky. Both seem to be fond of long takes and a distinctively authored use of cinematography. Both like unconventional storytelling. In Leviathan for example, major incidents are purposefully kept unseen. We do not see the pebble thrown into the pond, we only see the ripples.
When Leviathan first screened last year in Cannes, it was immediately met with critical acclaim. It was a feast of a film for movie reviewers. From a title with biblical references and a clever satirical script to edgy performances and astonishing technical elements; the critics were raving and drooling, bathing in its subtle encapsulation of Russia and its political, judicial system.
And here I am, not knowing much about Russian films but knowing a thing or two about Russia and films. What better excuse?
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) is as Russian as it can get, and sits perhaps a little too well with all the stereotypical perceptions of the country. Russians drink vodka in excess and chase it with Tushonka (canned meat), pickled tomatoes and cucumbers. They live quietly in a desolate landscape of gray marshlands stretching into the sea. Quietly, of course, until one decides to do otherwise.
This is Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), a small-town simpleton. He has kept his head down all his life and had just opened his mouth either to drink or say yes to everybody. With his khaki clothes and wrinkled visage, he seems indistinguishable from a background of rocks and moors in Pribrezhny. This is the Russian coastal town where the story takes place. In essence, Kolya exists to drink and drinks to die eventually. He doesn’t have much to his name, just a solitary lodging where he resides along with his pretty second wife Lilia (Elena Lyadova) and rebellious teenage son from his first marriage, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev).
What brings Kolya to life and out of the inanimate background is fear. He is afraid to lose what he has built “with his own hands”, his house and his land. The spot is eyed by the town’s crooked mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who wants to throw a dime his away and him out. The system is in Vadim’s favor and it is almost heartbreaking witnessing how Kolya’s appeals in court are overruled time and again by a monotonous reading of the seemingly inefficient modern Russian law.
There is a brief episode of hope however when Kolya enlists the help of an old army friend, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who now serves as a lawyer in Moscow. Dmitri manages to dig up some dirt on Vadim and is successful in keeping him away for a while. But this is a tragedy of ulterior motives, and even friendships cannot stand the harsh blows of betrayal. Dmitri and Lilia strike up an extramarital affair and reality strikes back.
And since this is essentially a moral story, it could have happened anywhere and maybe had the same impact. But it works perfectly well for Russia. Perhaps that is the reason critics like it so much. They like how it fulfills their expectations of Russia; a land of uncertainty, duality, and paradoxes. Where power-drunk Vadims seek guidance and encouragement from the Orthodox Church and the Church implores them to be steadfast in their championing of immorality and come down hard on whatever stands in the way of their goals.
“Where there is power, there is might” the cardinal reprimands the uncertain Vadim, “Solve your issues yourself, with your might!”
The same Church falls short in offering Kolya the peace he seeks in times of hardship; instead he is offered a Biblical quote where the sea monster, “Leviathan”, is unforgiving and overpowering.
“No-one is fierce enough to rouse him.” Kolya must do what he has done all his miserable life: Submit to this monster of a system or else meet his doom. The meaning is lost on poor Kolya, who had come to life from the depths of despair for what seemed the first time in his life.
Leviathan is full of these fine paradoxical references; an icon of our Lady of Kazan, a powerful religious symbol of the Orthodox Church, sits inches apart from photos of nude women on a car dashboard; on a picnic trip into the wilderness of the coastal town, Kolya and his companions take to target practice with official portraits of former Soviet and Russian leaders. They have been mocking the system for as long as they can remember but the sad irony emerges from the fact they are truly powerless in the face of the system. And this will be the story of future generations as well. Roma, Kolya’s rebellious son, sits around a fire in the ruins of a church and drinks beer with other teenagers, in effect repeating the same doomed pattern of his past generations.
And this is it. Russia is a vast beautiful land, with breathtaking landscapes filmed here in unsurprisingly steady shots to convey the stillness and the acceptance of what lies beneath the status quo. It remains beautiful as long as you don’t choose to fight against it; you can mock it and make fun of its twisted past but you can’t fight it; it will tear you apart and make you disappear, leaving your bones on some desolate shore.
As such, the ending seems inevitable, sad but not surprising. Kolya had it coming once he decided to come out of the depths of the dark angry sea and got “divided up among the merchants.”
Leviathan went on and win the Palm d’Or at Cannes. It was on a winning streak until it lost in the final match to Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) at the Oscars. But that’s another story.