Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Lurking in the opening credits for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film were the ominous names of the Russian arts council and the government itself. This is quite perplexing because Zvyagintsev has announced himself as a formidable critic of contemporary Russia, which makes the approval of this film rather mysterious. Are Putin and his cohorts playing mind games worthy of Jose Mourinho? Is this a show of power by the government? Make your little film, we’ll even fund it, it won’t make a difference?
Although Zvyagintsev has stated that the film is inspired by a real story originating from America, it is hard not to see it as an explicit indictment of corruption in Russia. The parable-like Leviathan tells the story of Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov) and his family’s fight to save his property in a small coastal town in Russia. The piggish mayor Mer (Roman Madyanov) has decided Nikolay’s cherished spot of land is the perfect place to build his new abode, and Nikolay refuses to accept the pitiful compensation on offer for his life’s work.
He enlists the help of his old army comrade, the chiseled Moscow attorney Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who has unearthed some unsavoury information about Mer which could give them a fighting chance. Meanwhile Nikolay’s wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) struggles to cope with the isolation of the house and her frayed relationship with teenage Romka, who is unwilling to accept her as a new mother figure. The characters are drawn out in broad strokes; Nikolay is the hot-headed, feisty underdog, Dmitriy the charming rationalist, Mer the bloated, corrupt authority figure.
It is in some ways quite a strange film coming from someone like Zvyagintsev. He started out with the enigmatic, brooding drama The Return, an incisive exploration of masculinity which reveled in the stoicism of its characters. The film was more about what was unsaid than what was said, a masterclass in atmosphere and icy, bleak visuals. Leviathan is quite the opposite, a film where most of the characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, emboldened by too many shots of vodka. The storytelling is quite conventional, dispensing with much of the ambience and intensity of Zvyagintsev’s earlier work.
Leviathan is almost three hours long but it doesn’t feel like it. The story is so involving that you are swept up in Nikolay’s plight and feel the pain and frustration that he is experiencing. It is a supremely confident tragedy, underlining the inherent rotten core of Russian politics. While Mer the mayor seems at times to be cartoonishly buffoonish and evil, the joke doesn’t really last that long as you realise that yes, this is actually the state of the world today. While I might quietly yearn for the mystique of Zvyagintsev’s earlier films, I cannot fault him for taking a hammer to bludgeon home the brutality of a corrupt society.