Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev,
Writers: by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin
“In this work at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.”
– Simone Weil, “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force”
“You are covered by the divine being, you can do whatever you want, enjoy . . . Not only the explicit message: renounce, suffer and so on… but the true hidden message: pretend to renounce and you can get it all.”
– Slavoj Zizek, Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
Kolya is a mechanic living in a northern Russian fishing village, on the same property as generations of his ancestors. We meet him in the midst of one of the most challenging of combats: that of wresting his land (or at least getting a fair price for it) from the grimy hands of a public official.
Kolya has been referred to as a modern-day Job, but he’s closer to a demonic parody of the Biblical figure; he isn’t righteous, great, or rich—hardly the faithful servant of whom God might brag to Satan.
Kolya is just a wee bit too ordinary to excite our sympathy. We wish he would just dodge the massive steamroller of injustice coming his way, but instead he puts his shoulder against it and, naturally, fails—rendering him a tragic hero.
It’s easier to feel sympathy for Kolya’s son Roma, pitifully ill equipped to cope with the moral degradation of his environment. Or for his second wife, the pretty Lilya, who tries to fulfill her duties as a housewife and stepmother in spite of feeling utterly miserable.
But Kolya’s role in the story is not to excite our sympathy. He’s actually there to showcase a peculiar set of social conditions, conditions that challenge the human expectation that good will win out in the end.
Let’s reflect on those condtions for a moment. What happens when you remove church and free enterprise from a nation at the same time? You end up with communism, obviously. But what happens when you bring church and free enterprise back to that nation at the same time?
It’s like when you let two wild dogs out of the cage at once. Dogs are social animals that have evolved the ability to work together for their mutual benefit. This means that when they work in pairs or groups they’re capable of competing as hunters with the far superior cat family.
One of the dogs hunting Kolya down is Vadim, a weak but psychopathic mayor with shady business interests (a portrait of an approving Putin hangs above his desk). He wants Kolya’s sea-front land in a big way, and he wants it cheap. His partnership with the church grants him an aura of respectability in the community, and it looks like the church, for its part, encourages the people to vote for him.
The other dog is of course the Orthodox Church itself, its partnership with Vadim granting its clerics lives of luxurious idleness that the parishioners can only dream of. The priests will do anything to hang on to the perks, even if it means betraying their own sacred offices.
All Kolya has on his side is the wise, dignified Dimitri, his lawyer friend from Moscow, who starts off looking quite capable but who in the end succumbs to the same moral weakness that afflicts everyone in the film.
The moral weakness is carefully guarded. There is much silencing in the story, and in two separate scenes two different characters adjure someone not to confess to them. On the wall of an abandoned church, where reprobates gather to drink, smoke, and mock the world, is a faded painting of Salome being presented with John the Baptist’s head, a terrible reminder of how prophetic utterance has been silenced and cut off from this world, to great loss.
The film deals heavily in universals, and the cinematography expresses this beautifully. If you’ve ever been to a northern fishing village you’ll recognise this town; the foaming waves smashing against the grey loins of rock, the stormy sky, the wrecks of abandoned fishing boats, the moss, and the weathered buildings practically deliver the smell of rotting fish entrails and lashings of angst.
The massive skeleton of a beached whale is a central symbol in the film, representing the Biblical leviathan God mentions to Job. When the priest recounts the story of Job (which he gets so wrong that it sounds like he’s making it up as he goes along) it is to deny Kolya’s right to question God’s will, suggesting to Kolya that if he simply accepts his fate (that is to say the will of the church), good things will also come to him as they did to Job.
This’ll make you smile: even though this film has been lauded by critics the world over, making it a huge feather in the cap of Russian arts, the Russian minister of culture, responsible for providing thirty-five percent of the funding for the film, dismissed it for being a negative portrayal and accused the director of being too enamoured of accolades to be capable of portraying “real” Russians. The minister is now proposing guidelines to prevent this kind of film being made in Russia again.
Leviathan manifests six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.
• It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
• It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
• It stimulates my mind.
• It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
• It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
• It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.