Leviathan , drama, rated R, in Russian with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
It is not easy to fall into any absurdity, unless it be by the length of an account; wherein he may perhaps forget what went before . — from Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, 1651
On the outskirts of a small fishing village on the northwest coast of Russia and somewhere near the Arctic Ocean, rotting hulls of old fishing boats rock gently in the shallow waters of an inlet, and on a nearby strand loom the massive bones of the skeleton of a long-ago beached whale. Life is tough in these parts, both in the state of nature and in the state devised by man.
Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), an auto mechanic, lives on a piece of land overlooking the spare but magnificent vista of this Russian outpost. The location is magnificent enough that it has attracted the covetous eyes of the town’s mayor, a loathsome, corrupt pig named Vadim (Roman Madianov). Vadim has set in motion the machinery of government to crush Kolya and take away his property.
Kolya isn’t taking it lying down. His life may not be great, but it’s his life. He lives with his attractive young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and a surly teenage son from a previous marriage, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), in a dilapidated but picturesque house that has been in his family for generations. To fight city hall, he has called out to an old army buddy, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a slick, successful lawyer in Moscow.
As the movie opens, Dmitri arrives by train, and the two old pals sit around the kitchen table going over legal papers and putting away impressive quantities of vodka. Dmitri cautions Kolya that they probably won’t get a favorable verdict in the upcoming hearing, but tells him not to worry — he has done some investigation into Vadim’s background and come up with some incriminating dirt that will force the mayor to back off.
And that’s the way it happens. At the hearing, a judge reads the rejection of Kolya’s appeal in the rapidfire monotone of a pitchman reciting the potential side effects of a prescription drug. And then Dmitri goes to see Vadim. In the mayor’s office, which is decorated with a conspicuous framed photo portrait of Vladimir Putin, the Moscow lawyer hands over a file filled with stuff apparently so vile that the mayor caves and agrees to Dmitri’s terms without a fight. Apparently.
Vadim’s closest confidante is the local Russian Orthodox bishop (Valeriy Grishko), who declines to hear the specifics of what Dmitri has on the mayor (“We’re not in confession”) but castigates him to fight back like a man. Religion by and large takes its lumps here; young Roma hangs out with his teenage buddies in the collapsed shell of a ruined church, sitting around a campfire and learning how to get drunk.
Along with the mightiness of nature and the pervasiveness of political corruption, drink is perhaps the most prevalent constant in director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s bleak world. Everyone, but especially the men, down tumblers and bottles of vodka like health nuts hydrating. Several of Kolya’s close friends are local cops, and one of them, Pacha (Aleksey Rozin), invites the group to go on a picnic to celebrate his birthday, where they will drink and shoot at targets. Guns and vodka. What could possibly go wrong? The targets Pacha has brought along include framed photos of past Russian leaders, running up as far as Gorbachev, with the implication that there are more recent ones as well.
What actually goes wrong is a disaster more social than mortal, but it all adds to the troubles that, Joblike, continue to pile onto the gradually diminishing figure of Kolya. Unlike the biblical Job, Kolya is hardly a righteous man, but he is crushed all the same, and there is no God to step in and set things right. “Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?” says a village priest to Kolya, as his troubles mount. The secular way of putting that is: You can’t fight city hall.
Zvyagintsev ( Elena ) and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman paint gorgeous pictures that, buttressed by music from Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten , emphasize the overwhelming forces of nature and state lined up against the puniness of man. The title references Thomas Hobbes’ classic 1651 treatise on government, which proposes that the brutishness of nature can only be overcome by a powerful state (“For by art is created that great Leviathan called a Commonwealth or State”), which in turn summons the symbolism of the biblical leviathan of the Book of Job.
Zvyagintsev took the screenplay award at Cannes, and the film is a leading Oscar contender in the Foreign Language Film category. It contains scenes of exhilarating and devastating power, including a leviathan-like appearance near the end of the devouring jaws of modern machinery. But there are flaws in the storytelling, which can be both disconnected and, at nearly two and a half hours, heavy-handedly drawn out. Points are made, remade, and made again. The acting is solid, the setting is sensational, and the outlook is bleak.
In deep weeds: Aleksey Serebryakov