Issue 48 (2015)

Andrei Zviagintsev: Leviathan (Leviafan, 2014)

reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2015

leviathanAmong readers of this site, only the indolent [tol’ko lenivyi], in the felicitous Russian phrase, can remain ignorant of the phenomenon that is Andrei Zviagintsev’s fourth and latest feature film: of its urgent, plangent examination of the travails of a simple car mechanic assailed both by cruel fate and by maleficent representatives of authority in the contemporary Russian hinterland; of the praise it has garnered both in Russia and in the West; of the savage and sustained attacks on it in its home country for its perceived lack of patriotism and its temerity in questioning the current role in society of the Russian Orthodox Church; of Zviagintsev’s many lengthy and revealing  interviews and Q&As discussing his motivations and his working method; of the excitement and controversy that has accompanied the film’s trajectory around the world, culminating (for now) in its ultimately unsuccessful quest for the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Feature of 2014.

Like its three predecessors, Leviathan has at the heart of its plot a narrative of family crisis. In all four films, either the mother or the father of the family at the centre of the story dies violently, leaving orphaned offspring behind. In all of them, family photographs point to happier times. (In the case of Leviathan the bereaved hero, also looks at mobile phone footage of his running, smiling wife and unanswered mobile phones are a harbinger of doom.) The film shares with The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003) a setting in the stark Russian north; with The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007, a film whose title it could have borne), the story of the death, probably by suicide, of a depressed wife; with Elena (2011) an interest in the inequalities of contemporary Russian society.

leviathanYet despite these connections, Leviathan is in some ways a very different film. While all Zviagintsev’s earlier films were reticent, allusive, abstract, enigmatic, he now forsakes this approach for a new aesthetic of explicitness, density, fullness. Leviathan is more capaciously plotted, faster paced, with more talk, more action, and a more peopled world beyond the circle of family and friends. It contains more byt, more connections with the materiality of contemporary Russian life. It is also more direct about its intentions. The documentary about the making of Elena contains scenes, including one of the hero, Vladimir, watching a film about a plague of locusts,  that were removed from the final cut of the film because, as Zviagintsev told Irina Liubarskaia, they were “too blunt” [slishkom v lob], (Zviagintsev 2011b, 69). In Leviathan, by contrast, there are scenes that have the express purpose of explaining the implications of what is going on. As reported by Mikhail Shats (Zviagintsev 2015b), Naum Kleiman, who has followed Zviagintsev’s progress for many years and is an acutely perceptive reader of his films, has found a certain roughness [nekotoraia sherokhovatost’] in the surface of the film. My own initial shocked reaction to this willed change of authorial strategy reminded me of my first viewing of Kira Muratova’s The Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1989) in 1990, and, indeed, the films are linked by the same powerful civic impulsion felt by a normally more allusive director to speak directly about contemporary Russian society (and both suffered censorship of their “non-standard language”). As Zviagintsev told Dasha Sherman in 2012: “Don’t be afraid of strong feeling [pafos]. Because everyone is afraid of it. Everyone prefers cynicism” (Zviagintsev 2011b). One recalls Muratova’s anguished intertitle near the end of The Asthenic Syndrome: “People don’t like looking at this. People don’t like thinking about this: this should have no relationship to conversations about good and evil.”

Dialogue with other texts

leviathanLeviathan also differs from Zviagintsev’s earlier films by its far more extensive engagement with other texts and other films. It is repeatedly reported that the initial idea for the script was provided by the story of Marvin John Heemeyer, the owner of an automobile repair shop in Colorado, who on 4 June 2004 went on a rampage of vengeance against the authorities who had found against him in a zoning dispute. Zviagintsev’s hero, Kolia Sergeev, also has a car repair business and is brilliant with his hands—his friend Dima compares him to the distinguished eighteenth-century mechanic and inventor Ivan Kulibin—but Zviagintsev told Shats that his film bears “no relation to the American story” (Zviagintsev 2015b), which was just the seed for his own invention, and insisted at the Kinoproba festival in December 2014 that “not a trace” remains of the original American story (Zviagintsev 2014d). It is certainly more productive to examine Leviathan’s relationship with literary, religious and philosophical texts, the most immediately obvious of which are the Biblical Book of Job and the 1651 work by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes with which it shares a title. Hobbes took his own title from the Book of Job and indeed quotes from Job 41: 33 on the frontispiece of his book. Zviagintsev told Viktor Matizen about the important influence of Hobbes’s text about the relationship of state, government and society on his film “in the plane of ideas” (Zviagintsev 2014b, p. 39), but he revealed to Kseniia Sobchak that he learned from friends about Hobbes’s Leviathan only after work on the project had started (Zviagintsev 2015a).

In his conversations with Viktor Matizen (Zviagintsev 2014b, 39) and Larisa Maliukova (Zviagintsev 2014a), Zviagintsev also mentions Heinrich von Kleist’s novella “Michael Kohlhaas” as another source of inspiration – he told Matizen (rather improbably, given the indigestibility of Kleist’s text, with its dizzying array of important officials and its endless page-long paragraphs) that he “swallowed it in twenty minutes.” Written in 1810, and set in the sixteenth century, “Michael Kohlhaas” tells the story of a horse-trader who suddenly becomes the victim of new tolls and arbitrarily-imposed permits. Seeking redress, he is tricked and exploited by power—a Junker, Wenzel von Tronka, takes a pair of his best horses and then works and starves them almost to death. The rest of the story concerns Kohlhaas’s increasingly obsessive search for justice. He hires a lawyer, who initially seems to be fearless in his support and confidently demands fairness for his client, before quickly letting him down. His attempts to help himself are thwarted by a labyrinth of legal complexity, bureaucratic detail and cronyism. His wife dies from a freak accident. All of these developments, as well as the nightmarish elaboration of how the law works against the weak individual, are very close to the experience of Zviagintsev’s Kolia, but Michael Kohlhaas simultaneously embarks upon a campaign of vengeance, making him a close brother of Gogol´’s Captain Kopeikin, another simple man whom mistreatment and humiliation by authority set on the path of violence. At the height of his mad obsession, Kohlhaas calls himself an “emissary of the Archangel Michael” and seeks to establish “a seat of our Provisional World Government” (Kleist 1978, 148). Eventually he is condemned to death and taken to execution.

leviathanKleist’s story was filmed in 2012 as Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas, directed by Arnaud des Pallières, and another film which can be drawn into Leviathan’s orbit is Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding, 2013), a savage picture of life in modern China based on real events and motivated once again by disgust at the corruption, embezzlement, inequality, random violence and moral degradation brought about by the new political order and by a pervasive sense that there is “no justice.” Two of the film’s four stories, that of the ex-miner Dahai and the sauna receptionist Xiao Wu, describe vendettas and in another of the stories a toll is imposed arbitrarily, just as it was in “Michael Kohlhaas.” Thus a disgust at the state’s arbitrary violence and corruption links all these stories, but while Heemeyer, Kohlhaas, Kopeikin and Jia’s heroes all embark upon a rampage of vengeance, Zviagintsev’s Kolia does not. Asked why he had eschewed this approach, Zviagintsev told Maliukova: “if we had ended in rebellion, the viewer would have left the cinema satisfied” and insisted that his own quiet, inconsolable resolution of the narrative was considerably more terrifying (Zviagintsev 2014a). This interpretation is echoed in the brilliantly thoughtful and incisive analysis of the film in the journal Iskusstvo kino by Anton Dolin, who stresses its “social and psychological truthfulness” and describes this “gun [which] does not fire” as the thing which makes the script of Leviathan “so sensational” (Dolin 2014, 48).

Franz Kafka’s admiration for “Michael Kohlhaas” is widely documented and viewers of Leviathan will be reminded of some of Kafka’s most famous works. Kolia’s conflict with an implacable, shadowy bureaucracy at the start of the film reminds us of the travails of K in The Castle, while his later arrest for a crime he has not committed links him to Joseph K in The Trial. Even more pervasive are the links with the writings and ideas of Fedor Dostoevsky, through the story of family suffering and rupture, through biblical allusion and specifically through an interest in the Book of Job, through theological debate with the hero and through that hero’s eventual humble resignation (smirenie).[1] Zviagintsev’s Mayor, Vadim, speaking of crushing Kolia’s resistance, explicitly calls him a louse (vosh´), and he later subjects the lawyer Dima to a mock execution that echoes the one undergone by Dostoevsky himself. Zviagintsev told Vladimir Pozner, during their notoriously tense interview in 2012, that for five years he “lived out of Dostoevsky” (Zviagintsev 2012a) and that Dostoevsky was the figure from history whom he would most like to meet. He expressed his specific admiration for The Brothers Karamazov, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man and The Adolescent.

Dialogue with other films

leviathanThis openness to dialogue is apparent, too, in the myriad ways, explicit and indirect, in which Leviathan engages with other contemporary Russian films, and also in the director’s choice of actors. Elena Liadova has been Zviagintsev’s actrice fétiche since she voiced the heroine, Vera, for the Swedish actress Maria Bonnevie in The Banishment. Electrifyingly acerbic in Elena, here, as Kolia’s wife, Lilia, broken by the drudgery of her work in a fish factory and the volatile character of her husband, she plays frustration, dejection, exhaustion but also resistance and compassion with enormous subtlety and pathos. Aleksei Rozin, who played Elena’s wastrel son Serezha in that film, is here cast as Kolia’s friend, the traffic cop Pasha Polivanov with no traffic to control, while the choice of other actors draws upon the aura of their roles in important recent films by other directors. Pasha’s wife Anzhela is played, brilliantly, by Anna Ukolova, whom Zviagintsev had seen playing the mother of a young boy in Vasilii Sigarev’s Living (Zhit’, 2012). (Zviagintsev 2015b). Asked at the Kinoproba festival which contemporary Russian directors he most admires, Zviagintsev mentioned “Sigarev, of course” (Zviagintsev 2014d), and Ol’ga Lapshina, who played simple, good-hearted Galia Kapustina in that film, is here cast in the minor but significant role of the wife of Father Vasilii. Sergei Borisov, cast as the central figure of the policeman Andrei in Angelina Nikonova’s Twilight Portrait (Portret v sumerkakh, 2011), the embodiment of brutal masculinity, is here the tough operative from the Criminal Investigation Department who bursts into Kolia’s house and later drives him off to prison.

But the three main roles in Leviathan are all taken by prolific star actors, the majority of whose cinematic work and whose great popular successes have been in far more mainstream films. Aleksei Serebriakov is affecting as the irascible and emotional, good-hearted Kolia, baffled, perplexed and knocked about by life. Roman Madianov gives a mesmerizing performance as his main tormentor, the sweaty, foul-mouthed, shamelessly scheming Mayor, Vadim Sheleviat, resentful of Moscow big-shots, frighteningly determined to hold on to what he has and devious enough to fawn on his superiors whether from church or state. Dima the lawyer calls him a “monster” [chudovishche], associating him with the film’s central metaphor and asks him to his face how the earth can bear his weight [Kak vas zemlia nosit?]

leviathanMost interesting in this respect is the choice of Vladimir Vdovichenkov for the role of Kolia’s friend and former army buddy, the Moscow lawyer, Dima. Vdovichenkov’s cinematic persona has been that of the cool tough guy, the krutoi paren’, ever since the two films that made him a star, Aleksei Sidorov’s violent TV serial The Brigade (Brigada, 2002) and Petr Buslov’s The Bimmer (Bumer, 2003). That too was a story about a “tough Muscovite” [krutoi Moskvich], who was exposed as weak and ineffective, as laughably out of place, when he ventured into the rough Russian hinterland, and these words are echoed by Vadim in Leviathan. When, wearing sunglasses to cover up the signs of his recent humiliation, Dima shows his nervousness about being driven out into the middle of nowhere “for a talk,” Vadim contemptuously retorts “You’re the tough guy” [Ty u nas krutoi], words which are also a direct quotation of Sveta’s mockery of Danila’s “cool tough guy” persona at the end of Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997).[2] For all his initial cool confidence and his adroit deployment of the number-laden legalese used by the judge who presides at Kolia’s hearings, Dima is an alien figure here. He is beaten up both by Kolia and by the Mayor’s heavies, and he betrays all three members of the Sergeev family—the trust of his former army buddy, Kolia, the love of Lilia (his character in The Bimmer also betrays a young woman’s love), the hero worship of Kolia’s teenaged son, Roma. Vitia, the little son of Kolia’s traffic cop friend Pasha, has got his number. Catching sight of him making love to Lilia at the picnic he blurts out: “the alien uncle is suffocating auntie Lilia… the handsome one, from Moscow” [chuzhoi diadia tetiu Liliu dushit… nu tot, krasivyi, kotoryi iz Moskvy]. Furthermore, he twice evades talk about God. When asked by Vadim whether he has been baptized and then by Lilia whether he believes in God he dismisses the questions, stressing that as a lawyer he believes in and deploys only facts. Given the urgency with which questions of belief and religious practice are addressed in the film this also marks him out as an outsider. According to Vasilii Koretskii, even his words sound like a translation (Koretskii 2015). After he has met his match in the Mayor, Dima is elided from the film, meekly taking the train back to Moscow. Vdovichenkov is forced to give the least interesting performance of the film’s major players, since under the handsome surface there is emptiness. In this context it is fascinating to consider what Zviagintsev told Kseniia Sobchak about the film’s structure. During their conversation she told him that a friend of hers who had worked on the film had reported that there had been a “creative struggle” [tvorcheskaia bor’ba] between him and Aleksei Serebriakov. Zviagintsev explained that it was, rather, a moving towards each other [vstrechnoe dvizhenie], that the film was shot almost entirely chronologically and that at a certain point, not without reason, Serebriakov had felt that the director did not want to film him – he seemed always to be in profile, or in general scenes. Zviagintsev had explained that he had his own understanding about when Kolia should take centre stage in the film, which he saw as a drama in a number of acts: Act 1—Dmitrii (Dima); Act 2—the Mayor; Act 3—Lilia (the hotel room). Only after this would Kolia come to the fore, to remain there till the film’s dramatic climax (Zviagintsev 2015a).

The Return was set in the majestic expanses of the Russian north and Zviagintsev returns to the Russian north for Leviathan, which was shot near the village of Teriberka on the Kola Peninsula, a place which he has called “the edge of the world, God’s creation” (krai mira, tvorenie Bozh’e; Zviagintsev 2015a). But, from the start of the film, we see the destructive effects of humans on a beautiful landscape: a road brutally gouged through a mountainside, the detritus of long-wrecked boats, covered in barnacles, an ugly row of pylons. Later there is a shooting trip to celebrate the birthday of Stepanych, the boss of the local traffic police. After powering a hundred kilometres along empty roads they arrive at a tranquil lake. “Let me relish the silence” says Stepanych, asking for a radio to be turned off. But before long they have profaned this pristine beauty by setting up a long row of bottles and firing at them, first from rifles (“Every guy should have his own barrel,” says Stepanych, handing his to Dima: Kazhdyi muzhik dolzhen imet’ svoi stvol), and then in a burst of fire from a Kalashnikov. This trail of debris recalls the piles of bricks of an abandoned, derelict schoolhouse in another northern-set film of last year, Andrei Konchalovskii’s The White Nights of The Postman Aleksei Triapitsyn (Belye nochi pochtal’ona Alekseia Triapitsyna, 2014), set nearby in the Archangel Region, and, on a more global scale, the ugly pipes and apartment blocks and the putrid waters of Norilsk in Natal’ia Meshchaninova’s Hope Factory (Kombinat Nadezhda, 2014), a place which Sveta, the film’s teenaged heroine, is desperate to leave. The distant north, in recent Russian films, is a place of ravaged beauty and constrained lives.

The film’s northern setting also connects it to Boris Khlebnikov’s A Long and Happy Life (Dolgaia schastlivaia zhizn’, 2012), the closest to it of all recent Russian films in terms of plot. Like Leviathan, Khlebnikov’s film is set on the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk—it was filmed in the village of Umba in the Terskii Region in the south of the Peninsula. Like Leviathan, it opens and closes with scenes of the wild waters of the surrounding seas, and the film is punctuated by shots of a foaming river. As in Leviathan, the hero lives in a house away from other villagers, by the very edge of the water (Khlebnikov’s hero Sasha, “Aleksandr Sergeich,” is kept awake at night by the sound of it roaring past), and, like Zviagintsev’s Kolia, Sasha is a small businessman, a master with his hands but a political innocent. As in Leviathan, forces more powerful than he want to expropriate his land for murky purposes, in this case a vague “development plan” that prefigures the “public-private partnership” that Vadim speaks of for Kolia’s land . Sasha is summoned to the local United Russia (Edinaia Rossiia) Party office and pressured to accept the compensation which would finance a flat in town or a move away from the area; and, as in Leviathan, the true beneficiary of the land grab is revealed only towards the end of the film.

long happy lifeIn both films, the hero is subjected to a series of betrayals by those he thought he could rely on, though in telling contrast to Leviathan, Sasha’s girlfriend Anna remains loyal to him, even though she is employed by his enemies. Sasha’s profession of small farmer under threat of losing his land to powerful men reminds us, of course, of another post-Soviet film, Petr Lutsik’s Outskirts (Okraina, 1998), and like that film (and unlike Leviathan) A Long and Happy Life ends in the Russian rebellion [russkii bunt], to which Russians traditionally turn when tormented beyond endurance. But whereas Outskirts took an overtly surrealist approach from the start, and was sustained by a passion that culminated in a glorious revenge-journey to Moscow, A Long and Happy Life, made fourteen years later and in a different epoch, ends in quiet desperation on Sasha’s own land, as he kills the three men who have come to make him sign away his livelihood, and then returns mutely to his house by the river where his girlfriend forlornly hopes that things can somehow go back to how they were.

leviathan seaThough it has a different ending, A Long and Happy Life is so close in plot terms to Leviathan that comparison between them is instructive. For all the conviction of its acting and its evocation of place, A Long and Happy Life, which lasts almost exactly half the time of Zviagintsev’s film, seems disablingly underwritten and politically circumspect—though we see the sign of United Russia on the office wall at the start, it is never made clear exactly who the forces opposed to Sasha are. All the people who confront him seem to be minor functionaries and there is no parallel figure to Leviathan’s Mayor. In this context we recall Khlebnikov’s acceptance of the validity of the term “The New Quiet Ones” (Novye tikhie) to describe Russian film-makers of his generation:

Daniil Dondurei says that we have a prior feeling of some sort of terror, of fear of the authorities, fear of life. Yes... Sergei Shnurov was absolutely correct to call our generation “the new quiet ones”. This is a very precise name. We curse and are afraid of all these cops—we fall back on our heels and seem to whisper: scum, bastards, and so on. I think that cinema should be much noisier and freer by now. We should stop whispering and start producing films with a much more direct social effect (‘“Novye tikhie”’ 2011, 7).

By comparison with A Long and Happy Life, Leviathan shows both greater cinematic ambition and greater civic boldness.

Comparison is also instructive with another of the most provocative films of 2014, Iurii Bykov’s The Fool (Durak) and in this context the interest that the two directors have shown in each other’s films is revealing. Here is what Bykov says about Leviathan

I’m really keen to see Zviagintsev’s Leviafan. According to Lesha Serebriakov, it’s a big film about the way things really are. The authorities, the Russian Orthodox Church, violence, injustice, anguish. Any reaction from above is rubbish. The main thing now is not to lie (Bykov 2014, 67).

Zviagintsev, meanwhile, who saw Bykov’s film at the 2014 Kinotavr festival, at which he was Chairman of the Jury, had this conversation with Viktor Matizen:

Zviagintsev: I very much liked Iurii Bykov’s The Fool. I know the film is criticized for its bluntness, but it has the extraordinary energy of the truth of every shot and every character […].
Matizen: The Fool looks at the authorities in the same way as Leviathan does.
Zviagintsev: This is looking at things the way they are […]. But the authorities in this country behave as if their power comes from God and not from people (Zviagintsev 2014b, 47-48).

He would later reiterate this praise: “This is the first of his films to have made such a strong impression on me” (Zviagintsev 2014d); “a powerful film” (Zviagintsev 2015c).

leviathanBoth Leviathan and The Fool set their ordinary worker hero against the representatives of power in their town (and in this they are both linked to Khlebnikov’s Sasha). The plots of both films concern the struggle of an individual against civic authority and the fate of a house which stands allegorically for the state of the nation (in a recent interview Zviagintsev describes Kolia’s house as a world) (Zviagintsev 2014c). In the case of The Fool it is an apartment block, used as a worker hostel, which has not been maintained for years because money has been syphoned off by the town’s officials. Called out in the middle of the night, the plumber, Dima Nikitin, realises that the house has cracks from the ground to the top floor and is in danger of imminent collapse. He summons the town’s female Mayor and her fellow officials to inspect the building. This sequence and its consequences offer a darker variant of the long episode near the end of Gleb Panfilov’s I Wish to Speak (Proshu slova, 1975), in which Elizaveta Uvarova, Chair of the Town Executive Committee, is summoned to inspect a similar crack, and the town’s officials then outdo each other in their unwillingness to accept responsibility. Dima Nikitin’s attempts to force the authorities into action are met only with hostility and threats.

leviathanThough The Fool has none of the visual imagination of Leviathan, the two films are linked both by their social engagement and by a pervasive pessimism about Russian society. But they differ in another crucial respect. Whereas in Leviathan the Mayor is immune to the call of conscience, Bykov chooses to portray the town’s authorities as more nuanced figures, and to tell the viewer more about their personal contexts and motivations. His woman Mayor, Galaganova, who has had career problems caused by her gender, does seem at one stage to be on the point of repenting her actions, while another official, Fedotov, gets Nikitin released when he faces an extra-judicial killing. In his interview with Iskusstvo kino Bykov insists: “It’s enough to understand that all the characters are people, not monsters. Honestly speaking, there are no monsters. I’m convinced of that” (Bykov 2014, 65).

This same point is made by Igor’ Sukmanov in his review of The Fool, which explicitly compares it with Leviathan:

In this depiction of the authorities / the power structure, Bykov turns out to be even more precise, more elegant, more complex that Zviagintsev in the grandiose Leviathan. His bearers of evil are not as monstrous and are even susceptible to emotions. So one of Dima Nikitin’s fiercest opponents literally begs successfully for his life to be saved. And this plot development, one might say, atones for Bykov’s inherent misanthropy and sharpens the polemic quality of the film. (Sukmanov 2014, 60)

But is this greater realism, more subtle characterisation, or is sentimentality and self-delusion? In Leviathan Vadim’s cronies from the police and the judiciary are convincingly fearful that his failure to be re-elected will also spell the end to their own ill-gotten privileges and are in no mood to go against his wishes.

leviathanBykov’s film is dedicated to the memory of Aleksei Balabanov and the anatomisation of the webs of power and influence connects both The Fool and Leviathan to Balabanov’s Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007), the film with which Leviathan is in the most thoughtful and suggestive dialogue. Zviagintsev has praised Balabanov’s film at least twice in conversation with Viktor Matizen. Asked by Matizen in 2009 whether it made a strong impression on him, he said: “Very strong. While I was watching it I was beside myself—as if my soul was being dragged out of me” (Zviagintsev 2009, 658).

In a much more recent interview with Matizen on the occasion of the release of Leviathan, Zviagintsev once again discusses Cargo 200:

For me the answer is obvious: an uncompromising dialogue with the auditorium, an honest and truthful story—that’s what the real viewer is waiting for. Take Cargo 200—it’s also a completely merciless film and a terrifying one. I remember the feeling I had when I left the cinema. More than once I found myself feeling that I couldn’t physically breathe (Zviagintsev 2014b, 41).

It is striking, in the light of these words, to note how many parallels can be drawn between the two films. Both show a landscape scarred by human intervention. Both of them offer analyses of the state of Russia and both are imbued with civic concern. Both are set in a “town of Lenin,” Cargo 200 through the repeated image of the sign marking entry into the town, Leviathan by the repeated image of the huge statue of Lenin at the centre of the town’s main square (a vast, unpopulated place which also accommodates the prosecutor’s office and the courthouse) seen each time that Kolia and Dima are searching vainly for justice. Balabanov’s explicit connection of the foundation of the Soviet state to its demise is further adumbrated by references to Dzerzhinskii and Kaliaev, and by the busts and portraits of leaders from Lenin to Chernenko that deck the offices of the town’s officials. Portraits of leaders from Lenin, via Brezhnev, Andropov and Gorbachev to a sullen-looking Putin, are also on display in Leviathan. Cargo 200 ended with a nod to the post-Soviet future, thus linking three periods, 1917, 1984 and 2007 in an unbroken chain of corruption and violence, and Leviathan, by its reference to the founder of the Soviet state and his indistinguishable followers, takes up Balabanov’s baton.

serebriakov cargoExcessive drinking and its dire consequences pervade both of the films. Almost all the male characters in Cargo 200 drink, as does the central character’s aged mother. All of the main characters in Leviathan, male and female, drink to excess (excessive drinking is widespread too in Hope Factory and The White Nights of The Postman Aleksei Triapitsyn, though there at least the hero has been dry for two years). The young proto-businessman Valera who links the narrative of Cargo 200 to the post-Soviet future makes his money among the Nentsy, a small ethnic group in the far Russian North, where “everyone drinks, even the children.” Both of these societies have long since forsaken God—in both of the films teenagers are seen drinking in a desecrated or ruined church, its holy frescos now scarcely visible.

Both films show the machinations of the triad of forces that represent state power—in Cargo 200 the army, the Communist Party and the police, in Leviathan the civic authorities, the police and the judicial system. In both cases this triad of power reaches its peak in a single sinister, violent figure: the policeman Zhurov and the Mayor Vadim. But in a measure of the changes that have taken place in Russian society, Leviathan’s Mayor is himself answerable to two other figures, the Bishop (Vladyka) whom he visits for advice and reassurance and the Governor on whom he fawns at the end of the film.

leviathan serebriakovPerhaps most interesting of all are the links between the two characters played by Aleksei Serebriakov, Aleksei, in Cargo 200 and Kolia in Leviathan. Both of these men are outsider figures, who live in a solitary house by water, some distance from the town, and each is visited there by the sinister representative of power, the policeman Zhurov in Cargo 200, the Mayor in Leviathan. Kolia fixes cars, Aleksei employs a man who does so. Both are driven to violent and impulsive actions by drink. Each of them oppresses and upsets his wife. Both are homespun philosophers, seekers after justice and a better society. Aleksei’s obsession with Tommaso Campanella’s “City of the Sun” contrasts with the Hobbesian societal analysis of Leviathan. Both of them are God-seekers, engaged in conversations about belief: Aleksei’s conversation with a Professor of Scientific Atheism and his quotation of Dmitrii Karamazov’s words “If God does not exist, then all is permitted” prefigure Kolia’s conversation with Father Vasilii and his despairing cry after the death of his wife “What for? What for, oh Lord”?  Both are found guilty of a murder they did not commit and both are the victims of grievous miscarriages of justice – the scene of the rushed, contemptuous reading of the verdict by the woman head of a trio of judges in the trial of Aleksei in Cargo 200 is repeated twice in the words of the woman judge, Tarasova, in Leviathan. In this cosmically bleak vision of societal inequality, Zviagintsev’s Kolia is at least fortunate to remain alive.

Life on the Russian margins

What kind of picture of contemporary Russian life does Zviagintsev offer in Leviathan? One of the chief arguments of the film’s detractors is that they do not recognise it. Notorious among them is the Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinskii, who told the Izvestiia newspaper website that he “did not see myself, my colleagues, my acquaintances and even the acquaintances of my acquaintances in the characters of Leviathan.” He followed this assertion by shamefully impugning Zviagintsev’s motives in making the film:

It’s strange, but there is not a single positive hero [polozhitel’nogo geroia] among the film’s heroes [geroev]. That is to say, what and whom Zviagintsev hates is more or less clear. But whom does he love? Glory, red carpets and statuettes – that’s clear. But does he love any one of his characters? There are great doubts about this. You could probably have filmed something similar in the State of Colorado [...] and in an Arab suburb of Paris, and in the depressed regions of the south of Italy. Of course in that case the authors would hardly have received so many prestigious Western prizes. Let’s admit that in chasing after international success this film is excessively opportunistic (Medinskii 2015)

Alas, these are stale and depressingly familiar charges. When on the late lamented Channel One television discussion program Private View (Zakrytyi pokaz) the opponents of a complex new Russian film wished to demolish it, they had two favourite strategies: the first was to shout very loudly and the second was to insist that the film had been made in order to win prizes at Western festivals.

leviathanIt is true that any viewer of the film wishing to join in Medinskii’s faintly necrophiliac search for positive heroes will need to show imagination. The male characters in the film are rough and emotionally clumsy, taciturn or gushingly voluble by turn, given to raucous male bonding over drink, which in turn arouses sentimental reminiscences over army life in the distant past. There is nothing they enjoy more than bombing through the tranquil countryside, trashing it with their “barrels” and settling down to a picnic around a bonfire. The women are exhausted both by the drudgery of their work in a fish factory and by the predictable unreliability of their husbands. “It’s started,” sighs Lilia, when for the umpteenth time a drunken Kolia complains about the “palace” that Vadim intends to build on his land and reaches for the framed 1929 photograph that proves his family’s ownership. In an interview Elena Liadova insisted: “I played an ordinary Russian woman. With all the suffering, the aspirations, the hopes for something better, something fine” (Liadova 2015). Lilia’s friend, Anzhela is, despite herself, fascinated by the prospect of Lilia going off with Dima and admits that she too would not mind being carried off to Moscow, or perhaps even to America. In the fact that she is taken for granted, Liadova’s Lilia can be likened to Vera, the wife she voiced in The Banishment—in an attempt at reconciliation she asks Kolia if he wants a child—though she does have the satisfaction of knowing that her husband loves her, for clumsy signs of his affection pepper the film. Her situation is also comparable, as Rachel Morley has pointed out (RCRG 2014), to that of Liuda, the heroine of Abram Room’s classic examination of gender relations in early Soviet Russia, Bed and Sofa (Tret’ia Meshchanskaia, 1927). In that film, too, the heroine’s relationship with an inattentive, emotionally clumsy husband (also called Kolia) was thrown into turmoil by the irruption of a seemingly more attentive and sensitive outsider with an “indoor job,” only for this man in turn to let her down and to bond with her husband over their shared military past. At least in Bed and Sofa there was an open but potentially positive ending for Liuda, who left the two men to their tea and jam and took a train into the heart of Soviet Russia. Here the train journey is taken by Dima and for Lilia escape will come only in death.

leviathanWhen the town’s citizens encounter the representatives of authority they are treated with undisguised contempt. The Mayor allows himself to drive drunkenly on to Kolia’s land and calls him and his family “insects.” When Kolia attempts to deliver a complaint he is first rebuffed and then arrested (there are similar scenes in Dmitrii Mamuliia’s Another Sky (Drugoe nebo, 2010), in Twilight Portrait and in Dunia Smirnova’s Kokoko (2012)). But this disdain is mutual. After Stepanych has destroyed all the bottles with his Kalashnikov during the shooting trip, his friends reproach him for ruining their game, but he insists that he has some “more interesting targets.” He has brought along large framed portraits of Soviet leaders that are now surplus to requirements—Andropov, Brezhnev, Lenin, Gorbachev, perhaps Chernenko (it’s upside down). When Kolia asks “haven’t you got any of the current ones?” he replies that the “time of the current ones hasn’t yet come. Not enough historical perspective.” He adds that he has a Yeltsin somewhere, but calls him too small fry, using the soubriquet “the conductor” in scornful reference to the former president’s humiliating performance at Berlin airport in 1994.

Nor can they expect any help from the law. The smart Moscow lawyer who boasts of his powerful contacts cannot protect them. Both the Presiding Judge, Tarasova, and the Prosecutor, Goriunova are in the pocket of the Mayor and fearful of losing their houses, their money and their trips abroad. Tarasova twice pronounces sentence on Aleksei so quickly that not a word of it is intelligible and the perfunctoriness of this meting out of justice is adumbrated by the fact that the same trio of women presides over an appeal about a land dispute and a murder trial. That this treatment of Kolia is not unique is suggested by the couple waiting in the courthouse corridor, the woman in floods of tears.

leviathanBut perhaps the most important and innovative aspect of Zviagintsev’s representation of contemporary Russia in the film is the picture he gives of the role of religion and of the Russian Orthodox Church. In his extensive Q&A session at the December 2014 Ekaterinburg Kinoproba festival after a showing of The Banishment, one of the most important elaborations of his directorial motivations and practice, he stated that he came to the scriptures via Dostoevsky, and that when he was seventeen, in 1981, and in the first year of his studies at the Novosibirsk Theatre Institute, an old woman had given him a copy of the Bible (Zviagintsev 2014d). Biblical contexts and allusions have been important in all of his films and have attracted a lot of scholarly attention. In The Return the most notable of these is the studied placing of the sleeping father on a bed in an exact replication of Andrea Mantegna’s painting The Lamentation of Christ, while in The Banishment children complete a jigsaw puzzle of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Annunciation and read the passage from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians in which he extols the qualities of love. In Elena the heroine opportunistically quotes to her husband Christ’s parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. This sustained use of biblical allusion is evidence of an abiding element in Zviagintsev’s films. He told Sergei Anashkin in 2011 that in his first two films:

In fact the day to day stratum was not the main one for me. Another layer was more important—and let this sound over-emotional [pafosno]—the relationship of man with God (Zviagintsev 2011a).

For Naum Kleiman, the horizon returned to Russian cinema in Zviagintsev’s films, restoring the distinction between Heaven and Earth (Kleiman 2014, 439-40).

leviathanVlad Strukov has spoken (RCRG 2014) of the decoupling of faith and religious power in Leviathan and Zviagintsev is the first Russian film-maker to have attacked the closeness of the Orthodox Church to earthly power in such a direct and savage way. He does so through the figure of the “Vladyka,” a term used in Russian for a range of members of the higher clergy, a Bishop, an Archbishop, a Metropolitan, and a word whose etymological connection with the wielding of power connects it to the word vlast’. Vlast’ is a word that both the Bishop and the Mayor are very fond of using: the Bishop’s mantra is that “all power is from God” [vsiakaia vlast’ ot Boga], while a drunken Vadim tells Kolia that you must be able to recognize the face of power [Vlast’, Kolia, nado znat’ v litso]. The two men are linked throughout the film. They eat and drink together and they use the familiar form of address (they call each other ty). They have the same aggressive-defensive mentality. They are connected too by their ambiguous lexis, which elides the difference between earthly and heavenly power. The Bishop urges Vadim not to forget the “heavenly kingdom” [tsarstvo nebesnoe]. Later, when Vadim learns of Kolia’s sentence, while enjoying a solitary meal in a fancy restaurant, he exclaims “Fifteen years. Well, thank God.”

During the two visits which Vadim makes to him before the dedication of the new church in the film’s climactic scene, the Bishop consistently mixes religious and militaristic terminology. During the second visit he reminds Vadim that:

You and I are co-workers, of course, we are doing the same deed, but you have your Front and I have mine. I told you a few days ago and I repeat now that all power is from God, where there is power there is strength.

leviathanHe further reminds the Mayor that if he does not exercise his strength ‘the enemy’ will think that he has grown weak. At the end of this visit and after the Bishop’s pharisaical words, the camera homes in on a small bust of Christ in a crown of thorns with the words Ecce Homo. Christ has been betrayed once more. Both during Vadim’s second visit and in his deeply ambiguous final sermon the Bishop uses the phrase “the enemy is not sleeping,” which can be traced back both to the First Epistle of St Peter (“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”; 5:8) and to the discourse of the Soviet 1930s which saw enemies at every turn. Vadim, meanwhile, has already shown such paranoia about people attempting to undermine him that the Prosecutor, Goriunova, has accused him of seeing phantom enemies all around. And the Bishop’s final sermon also explicitly links “victories over the enemies of faith and of the fatherland [otechestva].”

Zviagintsev told Larisa Maliukova that his film attacks hypocrisy, pharisaical attitudes and dogmatism (Zviagintsev 2014a). Asked bluntly by Mikhail Sats whether he believes in God, he replied “I am a secular person. I think that you should believe in God and not in priests.” He further suggests that there are times when the church should be the “fiery eye” [iaroe oko] and expose what is going on, rather than seeking to be like everyone else. The church must be totally independent, answerable only to God. This is its lofty role (Zviagintsev 2015b).

Perhaps the most passionate articulation of these ideas comes in his most recent conversation with Viktor Matizen:

Taking gifts from people who are breaking the law, stealing and committing various excesses—after all they really do know from whose hands they are accepting these gifts; watches worth tens of thousands of dollars, convertibles and chapels, is this not falsehood before our Creator?! [...] Think what Christ would have done if he had come into the study of such a priest (Zviagintsev 2014b, 46-47).

Some of the film’s critics have accused Zviagintsev of opportunism in Leviathan’s allusions to Pussy Riot. Late in the film we see the words Pussy Riot on the screen of a television that we cannot hear. Then, in his sermon, the Bishop refers to people who “blaspheme by calling demonic rites a prayer” [koshchunstvenno nazyvaiut besnovanie molebnom], using the same liturgical word for prayer, moleben, as was used by and of Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” [Pank-moleben]. These references are neither random nor superficial: Pussy Riot, too, were protesting at the accommodation they saw between the Orthodox Church and the political power. In the words of Anton Dolin:

Zviagintsev is no punk, but his film has all the qualities of a prayer. Here, as with Pussy Riot, the form arouses rejection in many people, and the content will seem excessively like that of a poster, but in fact both the act in the Church of Christ the Savior and Leviathan are in that almost sacral space where solitary opposition to evil demands precisely this: challenge and directness (Stozevno i laiai: 2015).

leviathanBut there is another priest in the film, and this one is explicitly connected with Kolia. Shortly before their encounter, while he was still unaware of what had happened to his missing wife, Kolia had visited the ruined church where his son would hang out with friends. Casting his head back to drink vodka from the bottle, he had seen a fresco of Salome bearing the head of John the Baptist on a platter, a beheaded apostle in a beheaded church. This story of a biblical sufferer in the cause of righteousness prefigures the story of Job in the film, but Kolia is not yet alert to its relevance to his own fate. A little later, after viewing his wife’s dead body on the merciless beach and calling out to God for explanation, he meets Father Vasilii in the village shop. Kolia is buying vodka (“What else?” he asks), while the priest is buying bread. This sequence, in which a recently bereaved spouse meets a simple priest who is known to him and asks the question often put by the bereaved, why has God allowed it to happen, directly echoes a scene in Sigarev’s Living, a film for which Zviagintsev has expressed his admiration. “Where is your merciful God?” asks Kolia. When the priest replies that his God is with him but that he does not know where Kolia’s is, since he has never seen him in church, Kolia retorts, with heavy irony, “If I lit candles, would my wife be resurrected, would my house be restored to me?” When the priest cannot provide an adequate answer, Kolia asks him what he does know and offers him vodka. It is this that leads Father Vasilii to tell him the story of Job, who “like you, asked himself the question of the meaning of life,” thus making explicit the film’s connection with its most important source text, and to quote the verse, “Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook?” (Job 41:1) which has given it its title. The story of the Book of Job was told to Alesha Karamazov by Father Zosima in Book 6, Chapter 2 of The Brothers Karamazov. In the section “Of the Holy Writ in the Life of Father Zosima,” the Elder tells Alesha that when he heard it for the first time at the age of eight he was overwhelmed. By contrast, Kolia’s reaction to hearing it verges on the blasphemous. When Father Vasilii has finished his narration, telling him that Job lived to the age of one hundred and forty and saw his sons, “even four generations,” Kolia replies “Is it a fairy tale?” (“Skazka, chto-li?”), using exactly the same word that Vladimir had used in response to his wife’s evocation of the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard in Elena.

Is Kolia, then, Job? Both are visited and tested by a succession of seemingly arbitrary and unjustified calamities. Each laments and rails against God, asking the reason for his suffering. Kolia’s question, “What for, oh Lord?” is prefigured by Job’s complaint that God “breaketh me with a tempest and multiplieth my wounds without cause” (Job 9:17) and by his asking “Why do you persecute me as God, and are not satisfied with my flesh?” (Job 19:22). Zviagintsev told Kseniia Sobchak that though the title of his film comes from the Book of Job, it is not an illustration of the biblical text. Rather the shadow of the Book of Job throws light on the hero of the film. When the plot was taking shape he realized that he could take a protosubject (protosiuzhet) from the Book of Job. So the film’s title is “brazen, a challenge.” But it is a title that he really likes and he feels that despite the triviality of the plot “the emotional intensity (pafos) and scale of this title will be justified” (Zviagintsev 2015a).

Despite his incredulity about the Job story, Kolia insists on carrying the heavy sack of loaves with which Father Vasilii is struggling. When they reach the priest’s house he learns that they have been bought in preparation for Lilia’s funeral. The priest’s wife takes a loaf to a poor neighbor. Here is a model of priestly charity to set against the pomp of the Bishop and a proposal of faithful endurance for Kolia to abide by. But there is still an important way in which Kolia’s fate will differ from that of Job. The visit of God to Job and the mention of his mercy with which Father Vasilii concludes his narrative come at the very end of the biblical Book of Job, but this is far from the end of Kolia’s suffering. He does not yet know that he is going to be charged with killing his wife and sentenced to years in the zona, nor that his land is to be expropriated by the worldly priest who is the ally of his tormentor, Vadim. This further twist to the Job story only underlines Zviagintsev’s bleak vision of his country as a land from which God has been banished. He insisted, in conversation with Kseniia Sobchak, that there was “no possibility of allowing the audience to exhale at the end,” adding that whatever positive ending he might have come up with would have been fake (Zviagintsev 2015a).

leviathanThe persuasiveness of the film’s picture of contemporary Russia is due in no small measure to the script, on which Zviagintsev collaborated with Oleg Negin, as he had done on the scripts of The Banishment and Elena before it. The script was awarded a prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and among its many virtues is the subtlety and credibility of its drawing of character. When, after their relationship has been exposed, Lilia cries out piteously to Dima that she is to blame for everything [Vo vsem vinovata ia], he replies, in words which resonate through the film: “Nobody is to blame for everything. Everyone is to blame for something of their own. Everyone is guilty of everything.”

He goes on to add, speaking in the weasel words of a lawyer, that even if we confess something, the law does not take our confession as a proof of guilt and that we are innocent until proved opposite. And, here alluding to what has happened to them, he asks, “Who is going to prove it? And to whom?” But despite this later attempt to evade responsibility, Dima’s contention that everyone’s character is made up of a nuanced concatenation of good and bad actions is borne out throughout the film.

Kolia is a victim of the state and the system, the plaything of cruel fate. He is a good man, constantly using his mechanical skills to do favors for others. But he is also irascible, pig-headed, argumentative, obsessive, unable to compromise. Tact and subtlety are terra incognita to him. He drinks to excess and turns to violence, bringing disaster upon himself, at least in part.

Lilia betrays him with Dima, but despite this she remains loyal to him, putting up with his moods, and looking after his son, from whom she suffers calculated and wounding abuse. And it is precisely after Roma asks his father to throw her out and says that he hates her and that things are all her fault (unknowingly reminding her of what she had said to Dima), that she goes off into the night and drowns herself.

leviathanThe teenaged Roma has never accepted that Lilia can replace his dead mother. He is foul to her from the start. Then when he finds Lilia with Dima at the picnic, he feels that she has betrayed the father he idolizes. So, when he sees that Lilia and Kolia seem to be reconciled, he runs sobbing from the house. On his return, in a paroxysm of distress and confusion, he asks his father to throw her out. It is after this that Lilia goes out to her death, so it is Roma who sets in train the chain of events which will end in the imprisonment of the father he loves more than anyone. Ironically, when his father drops him off at school the next morning and asks him to try to forgive Lilia because “she is a good person,” it is already too late.

Dima is initially motivated by the desire to support his friend and former army buddy, Kolia—he has done the research, prepared the dossier, come all the way to the Kola Peninsula. He hates to see Kolia and Lilia arguing and he pities her in her dejection. He tries to stop Kolia hitting his son. He tries to get Kolia himself out of detention. He stands up to the Mayor. But he also betrays Kolia with Lilia. And he slinks away back to Moscow after he has been beaten and cowed by Vadim’s thugs.

leviathanThe same combination of high and low feeling defines the characters of Pasha and Anzhela, and is comically encapsulated by the two rows of three icons and three voluptuous nudes that Pasha has on the dashboard of his jeep. Pasha is first seen wheedlingly asking Kolia for a favor for Stepanych, and Anzhela is first encountered at the other end of a phone explaining to Lilia why she cannot come to court for the hearing as she had promised. Yet they both provide support and solidarity, advice and friendship. Alas, they are both irresponsible drinkers. It is when they are in their cups that they recall Kolia threatening to kill Lilia and Dima. So they shop him to the authorities; which makes it easy for Vadim and his cronies to arrest and imprison him; which leaves Roma orphaned (for the second time); which leads them, moved by human feeling, to offer to adopt him to save him from being sent to an orphanage.

Even the Mayor, though he shows no sign of remorse or compassion, is a recognizably human figure, reminiscent of the bureaucrats in Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector, fleshy and crude, gluttonous yet uxorious, distrustful of Moscow bigwigs, fearful of exposure, given to salty language and not without wit.
That all these figures are so compellingly recognizable in their mixture of aspiration and fallibility (a combination they share with the characters of Dostoevsky’s novels) is due both to the consistent brilliance of the acting and to the script’s unerring capacity to capture the cadences of ordinary speech. One of the most contentious aspects of the film in Russia has been its deployment of what is (paradoxically) called “non-standard lexis,” of mat, yet the swearing in the film is a key component of its artistic vigor—it sounds authentic, is in character and, on occasion, as in some of the Mayor’s tirades, it achieves its own comic poetry. As is well known, securing the film’s cinematic release in Russia involved rendering the swearing inaudible, something over which Zviagintsev felt he had no choice, as he explained in the Ekaterinburg Q&A. The scene whose neutering he most regretted was, unsurprisingly, the drunken dispute between the Mayor, Dima and Kolia outside the latter’s house, a maiming over which he felt “piercing regret” (Zviagintsev 2014d). As for the ban on cinematic swearing in general, Zviagintsev is unequivocal:

It’s a stupid measure. People don’t learn to swear at the cinema but at school, on the street and at home. You shouldn’t forbid authors to show characters who speak in the same way as they do in life (Zviagintsev 2014b, 35).

That this is a depressingly old debate is evident from a conversation the director Kirill Serebrennikov had with Vitkor Matizen in 2006 over his film Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2006):

This is a question of the duality of our consciousness. It turns out that in the great and powerful Russian language there is a group of words with which everyone is familiar and which many people use in daily life, but which cannot be permitted in art. Why not? In my opinion this is hypocrisy and prudery in relation to our own speech. […] Our hero cannot use other words in this situation (Serebrennikov 2006, 609).

Speaking in Ekaterinburg, Zviagintsev described cinema that is “just for enjoyment” as a dead end. Quoting the same verse of the Book of Ecclesiastes as Edith Wharton used for the title of one of her most famous novels, he solemnly described it as “the heart of fools in the house of mirth” (Zviagintsev 2014d). Yet Leviathan is also enlivened, particularly in its first hour, by a hitherto unsuspected taste for lightness and humor, a fact that he has acknowledged in interviews (Zviagintsev 2014c; Zviagintsev, 2014e). Anna Ukolova as Anzhela gets several of the film’s best comic lines. When, after he has discovered the errant couple at the picnic, and she has moved a rifle “out of harm’s way” (ot grekha po-dal’she, literally “further from sin”), her little son Vitia asks her “mum, what’s sin?”, she replies: “when you set fire to the cat, d’you remember?”

leviathanMore familiar among the script’s pleasures is the elliptical quality that adheres to some elements of the plot. I have referred earlier to Lilia’s suicide, but can the viewer be certain of how she dies? If she is intent on committing suicide when she leaves the house, why does she take her shoulder bag, the bag we saw her taking on the morning she left for work? The investigator later tells Kolia that Lilia died from a blow to the back of her head. Is he speaking the truth or is he just another of the Mayor’s stooges? Later still, when Anzhela tells Roma that his father has been accused of killing Lilia, he immediately blurts out “It’s not true!” Is this filial loyalty, or does Roma know something he isn’t telling her? There is a satisfying reticence, an enigmatic quality to this crucial strand of the plot, which contrasts with the sequences in the film where everything is spelt out. For Kolia, of course, caught in his Kafkaesque nightmare, such niceties of interpretation are irrelevant.

leviathanOther members of Zviagintsev’s creative team have been working with him for even longer than has Negin, and he is always quick to acknowledge their contribution in interview (see for example Zviagintsev 2015b). Mikhail Krichman has been cinematographer on all of his films, both the shorts and the features. Anna Bartoli, the costume designer, and Galina Ponomareva, the make-up designer, have worked with him since 2000, Andrei Ponkratov, the production designer, and Andrei Dergachev, the sound designer, worked on both The Banishment and Elena. Philip Glass’s music was used there too and it is majestic music from his opera Akhnaten, the story of a Pharaoh who achieved great power but whose dynasty was eventually doomed to destruction and erasure, that adumbrates the grandeur of the epic scenes of nature, of wild waves crashing against imposing rocks, with which the film opens and closes. Mikhail Krichman has said in interview that the shot that he is most proud of is the complex 180 degree pan on the bus carrying the women to their work in the fish factory, which culminates in a close-up of the devastated figure of Lilia (Krichman 2014). But there are other, very different shots which also contribute powerfully to the evocation of the world of Leviathan. Naum Kleiman, writing of Zviagintsev’s earlier films, had this to say:

Andrei is very attentive to texture [faktura]. It is not symbolic but emotionally prophetic [emotsional’no-veshchaia], if I can put it that way—as in a dream. In a dream you may not understand what is before you, but for all that the texture has a certain semiotic quality [znakovost’] (Kleiman 2014, 440).

In Leviathan these words might apply to the gloriously evocative shots of the verandah kitchen with its rows of carefully arranged pot plants on the window sill, and its piles of unwashed crockery lurking accusingly in a corner; or to the scene in which the reconciled Kolia and Lilia carefully pack jars of preserves in the basement in preparation for their expulsion from the house (for this too is a film about a banishment). The interior of Kolia’s house differs from the sterile coldness of Vladimir’s grand living space in Elena, from the ugly clutter of Serezha’s cramped flat in the same film and from the beautiful austerity of the interiors in The Return and The Banishment. It is profoundly shocking to see it destroyed by bulldozers in one of the two majestic sequences at the end of the film, the more so since Krichman has chosen to shoot it from inside the house, so that we experience the destruction not of a building but of a home, of books and plants, and food, a kitchen table, a whole fragile life being reduced to rubble. The bulldozers are shot as if they too are Leviathanic monsters emerging from the deep. As Susan Larsen has commented, they are similar in their destructive venom to the monstrous logging machine that devastates a beautiful forest in Mamuliia’s Another Sky (Larsen 2015).

leviathan bulldozerOther images remain in the mind—the portraits of leaders, a conveyor belt in the fish factory, a sinister file of black cars leaving the dedication ceremony at the end. But, as both Candyce Veal and Vlad Strukov have pointed out (RCRG 2014), the film’s most important and suggestive visual trope is that of the empty shell – the boats abandoned to the waters at the start of the film; the ruined, roofless church; the ghastly flat which Anzhela shows Lilia and which she insists can be redecorated (“not a European-style renovation, of course, but done with soul” [ne evroremont, konechno, no zato s dushoi]); an apartment block left unfinished, seen from the bus taking Lilia to work; and, finally, the skeleton of a whale, which Roma sees when he runs to the beach in despair. Dmitrii Bykov has compared this creature to the giant ray, which one of the characters calls a monster (“mostro”), dragged on to the beach at the end of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), another skewering of contemporary venality and corruption (Bykov 2015a). But, in fact, that animal was caught in fishermen’s nets and dragged to the beach in an atmosphere of curiosity and excitement. The whale which Roma sees is far more baleful and, when Lilia goes to the beach the following morning, another one is lurking in the deep.

Negative reaction to the film—beyond the fatuous assertion that it is “anti-Russian”—has tended to centre on three points, that I shall term implausibility, excess and vacillation over the register in which Zviagintsev intends his story to be received. Is it “credible” that Lilia and Dima would take the risk of going off together at the picnic? Or that Anzhela, the wife of a cop, would not know the consequences of insisting that Kolia’s heat-of-the-moment threat to kill his wife should be reported to the authorities? Of course she does so under the influence of drink, and so much drinking in the film, by all of the characters, risks implying that the source of all Russia’s social and moral problems is the demon drink. Doesn’t Kolia suffer from an excess of calamity and doesn’t his arrest for murdering his wife go beyond the boundaries of artistic measure? Whether or not a viewer is troubled by these questions is, in the end, a matter of personal receptive choice. Dmitrii Bykov, for example, is extremely bothered by them (Bykov 2015a; Bykov 2015b). But other viewers have indicated other ways of looking at Zviagintsev’s world. Vasilii Koretskii insists that the film’s dialogue works not on the plane of verisimilitude but through the “pure dialectics of tragedy” (Koretskii 2015). Naum Kleiman spoke of The Banishment as “the development of an existential theorem,” and of the possibility of reading the plots of Zviagintsev’s films not as a “concrete incident from life but as a formula” (Kleiman 2014, 442). Zviagintsev told Vladimir Pozner that artistic truth is more important than day to day truth [bytovaia pravda], that day to day truth is interested only in the here and now (Zviagintsev 2012a). And in answer to Viktor Matizen’s expression of similar skepticism about the credibility of the plot of Cargo 200, Zviagintsev reminded him that “in the cinema, reality is relative” [v kino real’nost’ otnositel’na] (Zviagintsev 2009, 661).

Perhaps more disabling is the film’s dual focus, its placing its hero both in the context of contemporary Russia and as an avatar of the biblical Job. If the blame for most of Kolia’s troubles can be laid at the door of the representatives of state authority, then the state is not—at least not directly—responsible for the actions of his wife. There is a measure of narrative clumsiness in the appearance late on in the film of Father Vasilii and in his “maybe you know that there was a man called Job.” The relationship between the two levels of interpretation was negotiated more elegantly in Elena, but at the cost of limiting the extent of its social engagement, a path of abstraction which, at least for now, Zviagintsev seems to have forsaken.

Transcending all such considerations is admiration for the grandeur of Zviagintsev’s ambition and the splendor of the film’s artistic resolution. At the end of the film a single crow caws its minatory caw. Crows circled overhead cawing darkly in The Banishment and they lurked ominously at the beginning of Elena. In the film about the making of the film included on the Artificial Eye disc of Leviathan, Zviagintsev calls it “a greeting from Elena” and admits that the scene was not planned (“The Making of Leviathan,” 2014). Even nature, it seems, is eager to become part of his team.


1] For a discussion of Dostoevsky’s pervasive use of the Book of Job in his writings, see, for example, Ionina 2007

2] Kolia frequently addresses Dima as “Dimon,” an alternative diminutive form of his name, Dmitrii. Viewers who remember Bimmer will recall that this was the name of the member of the gang of young men who betrayed his friends at the end of the film and, perhaps, begin to wonder whether Dima will do the same.

Julian Graffy

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Works Cited

Bykov, Dmitrii. 2015a. “Vse davno sdokhlo, vkliuchaia ‘Leviafana’—vot chto samoe strashnoe,” Novaia gazeta 13 January.

Bykov, Dmitrii. 2015b. “Zviagintsev protivopolozhen Mikhalkovu—i simmetrichen emu,” Novaia gazeta 19 January.

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Leviathan, Russia, 2014
Color, 141 minutes
Director: Andrei Zviagintsev
Screenplay: Oleg Negin, Andrei Zviagintsev
Director of Photography: Mikhail Krichman
Production Design: Andrei Ponkratov
Music: Philip Glass, “Akhnaten”; Andrei Dergachev
Sound Design: Andrei Dergachev
Costume Design: Anna Bartuli
Editing: Anna Mass
Cast: Aleksei Serebriakov, Elena Liadova, Roman Madianov, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Anna Ukolova, Aleksei Rozin, Sergei Pokhodaev, Sergei Bachurskii
Producers: Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Sergei Mel’kumov, Marianna Sardarova
Executive producer: Ekaterina Marakulina
Non-Stop Production, with the financial support of the Federal Fund for the Social and Economic Support of Russian National Cinema (Fond kino).

Andrei Zviagintsev: Leviathan (Leviafan, 2014)

reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2015

Updated: 24 Apr 15