Director: Andrey Zvyagintsey
Major Players: Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova
Out Of Five: 4
Quick definition. Leviathan is the generic term for any kind of giant sea monster or, in modern Hebrew, a whale. Director Andrey Zvyagintsey’s film, which won Best Film at this year’s London Film Festival, takes the term literally – and, perhaps more importantly, figuratively. The leviathan in the room, as it were …….
An epic film in both length and vision, Leviathan is set in a small coastal town on the Russian/Finnish border, where Kolya lives in a house on a prime location that the local mayor wants to purchase for re-development. Kolya enlists the help of his old friend, Dimitri, a Moscow lawyer, to fight his case in court, but they lose, even when Dimitri tries some less than legal tactics to get the mayor to back down. Kolya’s life goes rapidly downhill, discovering that Dimitri and his wife are having an affair: Dimitri leaves, she disappears, eventually turning up drowned, and Kolya is charged with her murder.
The house’s setting is crucial. It’s right on the coast, next to the bridge, but what passes for a beach – more rocks than sand – is littered with the wreckage of the town’s more prosperous past. Derelict boats, their slats washed away and their wooden ribs exposed, look like dead sea creatures and there’s also the actual skeleton of a whale, bleached white by the elements – all symbols of the wreckage that Kolya’s life is about to become.
And that precious house has a strange beauty all of its own, even though its location isn’t exactly scenic. Its panoramic kitchen window lets the piercing sunlight flood into the house, giving the bleached wood some welcome warmth. Even when the battle for the property is lost, its demolition comes as a shock when it’s apparently attacked by what looks like a mechanical monster – with Volvo branding. The building is tragically flimsy, its timbers shatter and splinter and the whole edifice collapses all too easily.
Metaphors are intricately woven into the fabric of this multi-layered film, so much so that there’s an argument for seeing it a second time to get the most out of it. Fundamentally, though, its story is one of small town corruption, a microcosm of the malaise infecting the whole of Russia, right to its very core. The director has been quoted as saying if you fight authority you eventually lose and the line actually crops up in the film. It’s exactly what happens to Kolya and his family. The portrayal of what passes for justice in Russia is, to Western eyes, shocking. The verdict of the court is delivered by a fast-talking official: there’s no jury, no defence and attempts to appeal against the verdict are met with obstruction at every turn.
The church doesn’t escape unscathed either. The corrupt mayor is shown discussing his problems with a senior cleric who lives in the lap of luxury, a stark contrast to the local priest, Father Dimitry, who makes sure his flock is fed by paying for it out of his own meagre income. And then there’s the new church that appears at the end ……
The story is also fuelled by copious amounts of tobacco and vodka – more leviathans in the room. A survey published in The Lancet this year said 25% of Russian men die before reaching the age of 55 because of alcohol, while in 2007 over a third of all deaths in the country were caused by smoking. Kolya, Dimitri and the other adults drink vodka like water and spend much of their time looking at life through a fug of smoke and drunken, bleary eyes. And the future for Kolya’s teenage son, Roma, doesn’t look much better.
Leviathan’s story was inspired by a true story in Colorado, but it’s Russian through and through, with a sombre tone that echoes classic Russian literature and theatre. Its outlook is bleak yet, underneath the depression and destruction, there’s still a glimmer of hope and that comes from the people. Their faces may be expressionless when they go to work every day, but they go on …. and on ….. and on.
Leviathan is released in UK cinemas on Friday, 7 November.