Review: Leviathan

Review: Leviathan

Leviathan [15] Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev Russia 2014

Reviewed by Colin Piper

Dmitriy lives in a dilapidated old house with his wife Lilya and son Roma. His family have lived there for 3 generations but the mayor wants the land and the local authority impose what we would call a compulsory purchase order on the property, offering Dmitriy a derisory amount of money.

He enlists the help of a lawyer from Moscow with connections (an old friend) to fight the imminent eviction but they find themselves up against more powerful adversaries than the mayor alone.

The leviathan of the title could be an ambiguous reference to Thomas Hobbes’ 17th Century book of the same name. Hobbes was ahead of his time in many ways, a materialist and anti-churchman, but he also argued for a strong state, an absolute monarchy, ‘to prevent people killing one another for their property’. Maybe Zvyagintsev is asking who defends us against anarchy when it is the state that is doing the stealing.

Dmitriy asks the local priest if God can help him, “Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook?” the priest says, quoting God’s words to Job. Leviathan could be interpreted as a modern retelling of the story of Job, in which the leviathan first appears as an all-powerful monster.

There are other metaphors in this film, like the whale skeleton and rusting old ships in the bay that remain unchanged as everything around them is destroyed.

This is not a ‘political’ film per se but, like Two Days and One Night, honestly and sympathetically describes the lives of working-class people, the issues they have to deal with and the basic decency they display in trying to cope. None of the characters are one-dimensional, however, and there are all sorts of mixed motives and divided loyalties that force their way into the story.

The acting is superb, the screen-play (that won at the Cannes film festival) wonderfully clever and the photography starkly beautiful. All these things are features of all four of Zvyagintsev’s feature films to date.

Most of the men spend most of the film drunk, I’m not sure I have ever seen drunkenness portrayed more honestly or realistically before. As someone who enjoys getting drunk myself I know only too well that it is often both extremely silly and sad at the same time, just like much of what happens in this film.

As a Marxist, who has lived through perestroika and the reintroduction of capitalism to the former Soviet Union, one thing that fascinated me was that I didn’t know until the film was half over when it was set. As the family arrives at the court buildings to hear the result of their appeal there is a statue of Lenin outside. The court room itself could have been from Kafka or Orwell, it wasn’t until we get to enter the mayor’s office and see a portrait of Putin on the wall that we finally know these events are supposed to be happening now. The point obviously is that for families like Dmitriy’s it doesn’t really make any difference.

The director has said that the story is based on an event that took place in America and that it is not therefore a political treatise on modern Russia at all. Indeed, to many people’s surprise, it is Russia’s entry for this year’s foreign language Oscar. He is also quoted as saying that “living in Russia is like living in a minefield” however and, with resonances to Russell Brand and the forthcoming election here, he also said, “I’ve turned 50 and I’ve never voted in my life. Because I’m absolutely certain that in our system it’s a completely pointless step.”

Leviathan is on limited release at the moment but this may change if it wins the Oscar.

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