Greed, corruption, and misery are at the very heart of Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s tough social drama which reconfigures the biblical Book of Job into a damning indictment of the presidential government under Russian leader Vladimir Putin while also yielding more universal themes of humanity and alcoholism, among others. The film takes place in a town by the Barents Sea and centers on a Russian fisherman and his family, whose home is about to be stolen by an autocratic, comically blustering but politically powerful (and power-abusing) mayor. According to director Zvyagintsev, the original prototype of this story was the case of Martin Heemeyer in the United States, which was then altered to fit a Russian setting. The film also won the Best Screenplay award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, as well as being in competition for the coveted Palme d’Or. In the words of producer Alexander Rodnyansky, “It deals with some of the most important social issues of contemporary Russia while never becoming an artist’s sermon or a public statement; it is a story of love and tragedy experienced by ordinary people.” Sounds about right.
If you thought the United States government was greedy and corrupt as shit… well, you’re absolutely right. But Russia’s got it pretty bad as well. And Leviathan makes it a point to emphasize the sheer disparity and damn near soul-crushing nature of living under such an oppressive regime. This is conveyed brilliantly by Andrey Zvyagintsev’s icy but not altogether distant direction, which also helps to get across the utter moodiness and atmosphere of oppression that exists in almost every frame. That being said, the film miraculously never feels like a burden or too much of a chore to sit through at any moment. Though it isn’t quite smooth sailing, the strength of the writing and characterizations are enough to sufficiently guide the viewer down a rabbit hole of hellish societal prospects and instances of maddening unfairness.
Something else that must be said, and pardon the extremely straightforward wording here, but making this film took balls. And not just ‘two comedians making a goofy farce about a notoriously sensitive North Korean dictator’ kind of balls. But balls in the sense that it’s a deliberate call to arms about social injustice in a contemporary society that has made the conscious decision to move backwards while most of the rest of the developed world continues to move forward (against the better efforts of the likes of Fox News over here in the States). And yet, throughout all the brooding and alcohol-fueled bellyaching which goes on, the film always manages to pinch itself and pull its characters out of the never-ending abyss of despair by peppering in a dose of levity and some humanistic touches which add to the flavor and overall appeal of the proceedings.
But as has been proven repeatedly throughout film history, even the heartiest and most weighty of dramas could fall completely flat if it didn’t contain a troupe of actors capable of bringing the material to life, and do it dramatic justice. Fortunately, the entire cast of Leviathan is more than up to the task of anchoring this weighty melodrama with some legitimate human pathos and each major cast member turns in a great performance. Even though I don’t speak a word of Russian, enough is conveyed non-verbally as to communicate the sheer desperation of the situation, with special attention needing to be paid to Elena Lyadova, who transcends the archetypal ‘wife character’ role, and whose plights provide some of the film’s most touching and emotionally hard-hitting moments. Plus, any modern film that has tertiary child actors who don’t suck also deserves some due credit.
In short, Leviathan is the result of when a filmmaking risk pays off. Maybe not as much of a risk in the narrative and storytelling department, but providing such an openly passionate plea against a regime where your society is so notoriously intolerant of any form of dissent is pretty risky business in and of itself. While on that note, a representative of the Russian government has finally spoken out about the film and unsurprisingly slammed it on behalf of the entire government, calling it “evil” and condemning it as being an unfair portrayal of life in their modern civilization. While there may not be much truth to the morals in this film (which I highly doubt, to be honest), it still doesn’t effect how impactful and powerful this film is. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev is attempting to communicate to the audience to open up to and defend the truth. And if that’s not enough, then sit back and appreciate this extremely well-crafted and engrossing piece of work. No matter how you look at it, Leviathan is a rousing success on all fronts, and empty schadenfreude it is not.