As far as pre-Oscar buzz goes, you can’t beat a story about a foreign film facing public outrage and censorship in its home country.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s three hour-long Leviathan has been causing quite a stir in Russia. Hailed by some as a masterful j’accuse directed at the Putin regime and the hijacked institutions that keep it in power, and decried by others as anti-Putin, anti-religious, Russo-phobic propaganda. After seeing the film, I can’t really place myself firmly in either camp. Yes, the film is critical of many things,but it isn’t exactly _anti- anything in the manner of most politically-driven works. It’s a bit more complicated than that. There’s a lot going on, a lot being said, and the film shifts so imperceptibly in tone and theme that you don’t realize until near the end that a bait-and-switch has occurred.
In a small northern fishing village, Kolya, a mechanic, enlists the help of his lawyer friend, Dmitriy, to defend him against the seizure of his land by Vadim, the mayor. This being a Russian tale, a few things are guaranteed: everyone is going to be miserably cold at all times, they’ll drink a shitload of vodka, and, no matter where the story starts, things will get progressively worse for the protagonist. So of course things don’t go Kolya’s way in court, and he is faced with the loss of his land and ancestral home, which increases the tension in his marriage and causes trouble with his sullen teenaged son.
The film sets itself up as a political treatise at the start. The breathtaking, panoramic establishing shots of the mountains and cliffs that surround the village are deceptively pristine, but as your camera takes us further into the village we see images of decay and neglect; then, as we enter Kolya’s house, which, though isolated and run-down on the outside, is warm and feminine on the inside, courtesy of his wife, Lilya. Their home is the only cozy, inviting space in the whole film, which contrasts sharply with the opulence and wealth on display in the spaces occupied by Vadim and his co-conspirator/confessor, the local bishop. Juxtapose religious icons and sinister portraits of Putin (are there any other kind?) with Kolya’s old family photos, and the contrasting indicators clearly delineate good and evil, leaving the audience well-primed for what we think will be Zvyagintsev’s examination of the injustices faced by the average citizen in contemporary Russia, and the corruption eating away at both Church and State.
But there is a sudden shift. In one scene, the film becomes about something else entirely. While strolling between vodka benders, Kolya comes across a local priest who advises him to stop fighting the system and have faith that his troubles are all part of a Plan. After all the shit this guy goes through, he’s told to just accept it. And that’s when it hit me: I’d been Job’d. We were being Job’d all along.
Now, I’ve read my Hobbes and grudgingly done my time in Sunday school, so I had a pretty fair idea as to the thematic concerns I was likely to come across in a film called Leviathan. But I wasn’t expecting a straight-up retelling of the book of Job, which is, in my opinion, the Old Testament’s most excruciating, table-flippingly frustrating book.
How did I not see it coming? Your lingering shots of whale skeleton on the beach. Those panoramic mountain views. I became aware of a suffocating sense of inertia. There are moments when even the ocean seems sluggish and inert; the film was suddenly no longer about Putin’s Russia, or the politics of Church and State—it was about the universal plight of people being hammered by insurmountable forces, and the incredibly depressing idea that we are all Kolya, and by extension, Job. And because of the languid, almost lethargic way in which you capture the landscape and move around and in between the characters, the shift from political statement to modern-day religious parable crept up on me quietly and with a complete lack of “a-ha!”
Given my aforementioned issues with the story of Job, I did experience a moment of dismay when I realized what was up. Yet I’m impressed with how you got me there. Your more straightforward contraposition of wealth/corruption versus poverty/decency sets the scene for the weightier moral and spiritual contemplation to come.