Movie Review: Leviathan Andrey Zvyagintsev



In the Bible, Leviathan is the name of the chaos monster defeated by Yahweh in pre-Biblical Hebrew mythology. He appears in isolated places in some of the Psalms that probably predate the composition of Genesis, and is described in detail in the book of Job, when God confronts him from the whirlwind and puts an end to Job’s questioning by showing the mortal man how impossible it is for him to understand God’s power and the construction of His universe. The Leviathan represents the chaos of the world without God’s supervision.

In the 17th century, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes adopted the term to symbolize the opposite—not chaos but the order of government: for Hobbes, human beings in a state of nature are greedy, selfish, and violent, in a constant state of war with one another, so that human life in its natural condition is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” But art (as opposed to nature) has created what Hobbes calls “that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE.” Human beings thus, for the sake of their general welfare, willingly surrender their freedom in a social contract that gives government—the great Leviathan—its power.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev plays with both of these connotations in the title of his latest film. Most obvious is the allusion to Hobbes. Certainly the film is about government, and the small town on the Russian coast of the Barents Sea which forms the film’s setting is a microcosm of contemporary Russian society. The film’s protagonist, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a handyman and odd-job automobile mechanic, lives on a hill in a house passed down to him from his grandfather. He has a wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and a teenaged son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) from a previous marriage, and we see friction between the two of them from the beginning. Lilya tells Roma to wash instead of being “like an ape,” and he tells her “you’re the ape.” And it does seem that Zvyagintsev goes out of his way to portray the animal nature of his characters: Kolya in particular is quickly angered and prone to turn to violence as his first response, but other characters are motivated by greed and lust as well. And while the characters are distinctly Russian, they also embody a kind of universal human nature of the “hold my beer and watch this” variety, though in this case it’s “hold my vodka and watch this.” Kolya’s old army buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a lawyer from Moscow, is able to restrain Kolya’s violent impulses when he arrives to represent Kolya in court, where he is appealing the forced purchase of his property (at a paltry sum) by the town’s mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), essentially a thug who controls both the police and the local courts with the sanction of the Orthodox church. If Dmitri represents Hobbes’ view of the purpose of the Leviathan of government—the restraint of human nature by the rule of law—then Mayor Vadim is Zvyagintsev’s critique of the Hobbesean view. For isn’t the major flaw in Hobbes’ argument the fact that governments of necessity are made up of human beings, people who are just as susceptible to the viciousness of human nature as those they purport to govern? Can someone as selfish, greedy, and vile as Vadim possibly manage to wield power in the interest of the common good?

In Zvyagintsev’s world, government is not Hobbes’ overarching power imposing order on society, but rather the Biblical Leviathan, the chaos monster of the deep, the cause, not the cure, of the “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short” lives of its citizens. It cannot be otherwise under a brute like Vadim. And Kolya, who like Job himself is in danger of losing everything in the film, is moved to “curse God and die” (in the words of Job’s wife). Kolya appeals to a minor local priest at one point, after running into him at the general store where the priest is buying bread and Kolya is buying vodka. He asks Job’s question of the priest—essentially the question of why the innocent suffer. In response, the priest gives the answer God gave Job (41.1-2):“Can you draw out Leviathanwith a fishhook, or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook?” which is to say, “Who are you to question God’s power?” In a curiously idiosyncratic summary of the book of Job, the priest tells Kolya how, after Job was reconciled with God, he had a good life and lived to be 140 years old. When Kolya asks “Is that a fairy tale?” the priest responds, “It’s in the Bible.”

That, of course, is not an answer to the question of whether the story is a fairy tale. Just as God’s response to Job is not an answer to his question about innocent suffering. The fact is that innocent suffering is only a philosophical problem if one presupposes a universe ruled by a benevolent deity. If one believes in a meaningless universe, suffering is simply part of the equation. The question matters to Job, and perhaps to Kolya, because they still have faith that God is not a fairy tale. But in a world governed by the Vadims, by the chaos monster, one can expect nothing else. Scenes of Vadim with the local chief priest only serve to underscore the irony of the story. The title page of the 1651 edition of Hobbes’ Leviathan depicted a giant (the Leviathan of government) with symbols of secular rule on one hand and the Church on the other, as the two pillars of government. Church and state are joined in Kolya’s village as well, but as the story progresses it seems clear that if indeed the god of this church had tamed the Leviathan of this government with a fishhook, it was not to subdue the chaos but rather to maintain and profit by it.

Although the performances are impressive—Lyadova is agonizingly troubled and complex as Lilya,Madyanov appropriately slimy and disgusting as Vadim, and Serebryakov as Kolya expressive of the most extreme of emotions without hamming it up—the real stars of the film are the script (co-written by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin), which won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2014, and Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography: the stark, treeless and rocky landscape of the Barents Sea coast, above the Arctic Circle in northwestern Russia near its border with the northern edge of Norway, provides a brooding but magnificent background for this brutal tale. The waves pounding on the rocky shore present a stunning visual image of the chaos monster that governs all in this barren world.

And the film abounds with other memorable visual images. Playing on the modern association of the sea-monster Leviathan with whales, Zvyagintsev gives us a startling shot of the skeleton of a huge beached whale near Kolya’s village, perhaps a visual symbol of the hollow, rotted corpse of Hobbes’ Leviathan of orderly government, completely dead in the Russia of the film. In another scene, looking for his son, Kolya visits a group of teenagers hanging out in the abandoned ruin of a church (the spiritual equivalent of the whale skeleton), where he sits drinking vodka near a fire whose sparks fly up through a hole in the ceiling—a visible representation of the famous maxim from the book of Job that “man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5.7). Paintings and photographs also carry bold suggestions in the film: in one scene between Vadim and the chief priest, a painting of the Last Supper hangs in the background between them, and we must wonder which of the two characters is the Judas in this scene. In another such meeting, a painting of Salome with the head of John the Baptist provides the background: what other saints, we are forced to consider, are being sacrificed by corrupt rulers for motives of lust or greed? In a darkly comic scene that needs no explanation, when the men go off to drink and have “target practice,” one of them brings large photographs of previous communist leaders—Lenin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, et al.—to serve as targets. Finally, and perhaps most boldly, when we see Vadim in his office, he is always framed with a picture of Vladimir Putin behind his back—a not very subtle association of the corrupt village government with that of the nation as a whole.

This is a film of mostly unrelieved misery. Like our natural lives, it is nasty, brutish, and at 140 minutes not very short. But I highly recommend your seeing it. Here are my top five reasons you ought to go to go to this film if you can find it at a theater near you:

First, though it’s not exactly the feel-good movie of the spring, it’s an excellent film. It was nominated for an academy award this year for best foreign language film, and won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA awards in that category for 2014.

Second, it has a script that appeals not only to the heart with its startling and realistic details of the pain of human lives, but also to the mind with its exploration of political and social themes.

Third, it is a beautiful film that you can sit and enjoy visually, even if you want to ignore the subtitles completely and don’t have any idea what’s going on.

Fourth, it gives an uncompromisingly critical view of corruption in modern day Russia. Indeed, it is remarkable that the film could have been made in Russia at all, let alone that it should have been the country’s official entry in the Academy Award competition. Russia’s Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, dislikes the film so much that he has proposed new state guidelines to censor films like this one that “defile” the culture and government of mother Russia. Since Americans often enjoy seeing things that make us feel superior to Russia, you might find this film satisfying, especially since we have absolutely no corruption or greed among our own government officials.

And fifth, we are in the doldrums of the American movie calendar, when film after film coming out of the Hollywood wasteland either insults our intelligence, puts us to sleep with its cliches, or has enough senseless violence to make us sick to our stomachs. If you have the opportunity to see Leviathan this week, now that it has finally reached the remote areas of Central Arkansas, opt for it rather than another soulless murder fest or pointless teen comedy. In the end, you’ll feel it was time much better spent. Four Shakespeares for this film.