At two separate points during Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, its put-upon hero Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) stands in front of a Russian court as the clerk delivers an unfavorable ruling. In both cases, the rulings are neither unexpected nor remotely just, but it’s the way they’re read—even-toned and hyper-fast, like the disclaimer on a prescription drug commercial—that’s particularly striking, as if no consideration has been given to the defense. In Zvyagintsev’s sad, angry, and sometimes bitterly funny film, Kolya’s fight against government bureaucracy and corruption is astonishingly quixotic, as if he knows full well the impossible odds against him, but takes up the cause anyway. Without invoking Vladimir Putin directly—though portraits of his predecessors up to Boris Yeltsin are whipped out once for target practice—Zvyagintsev offers Kolya as a case study in the difficulties ordinary Russians face in asserting their rights. The wise play is to capitulate. Otherwise, it’s a waste of the court’s time.
Bookended with passages from Philip Glass’ majestic opera Akhnaten, Leviathan takes place in a dead fishing village on the Kola Peninsula, a territory north of the Arctic Circle, and the presence of a skeletal whale carcass is enough to suggest the area’s absence of vitality. Nevertheless, Zvyagintsev’s widescreen camera admires the harsh beauty of the place, and respects Kolya’s mule-like refusal to leave it behind. When the unscrupulous mayor (Roman Madyanov) and his thugs and cronies demand that Kolya, his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) abandon his property, Kolya turns to Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a lawyer friend from Moscow who agrees to represent the family. After an initial setback in court, they set about crafting an appeal, but Kolya is dealt some terrible personal blows on top of additional forms of pressure from the mayor to play ball. Dmitri counters with a binder full of incriminating information about the mayor, though it’s an open question over who would be an audience for such accusations.
Since bursting onto the scene with 2003’s The Return, Zvyagintsev has been one of most promising filmmakers in a country rich in cinematic tradition, and Leviathan continues to build on the stately but dramatically accessible style of his gripping 2011 drama Elena. Though his Kolya is cast as the underdog in this fight, Zvyagintsev doesn’t imbue him with heroic qualities: He’s a brusque father, a distant and temperamental husband, and a heavy drinker, inclined to swig vodka straight from the bottle. In fact, his bullheaded refusal to give up his property is not really celebrated as savvy or courageous, because the consequences of not taking the government’s offer are severe enough to seem unwise. In a film that’s suffused with historical, political, and literary references, Kolya finds himself cast as the lead in the story of Job, a righteous sufferer.
Though moments of gallows humor bring some levity to the occasion, Leviathan stages a grim pas de deux between intimate scenes in Kolya’s crumbling inner circle and distant exteriors of the seaside surroundings, which swallow up all the heat. The rigging in place to squelch Kolya’s rights to property and self-determination extends from the mayor to the courts to the Orthodox Christian church, all of which work to reinforce an overwhelming institutional power. Leviathan itself feels like a brave, lonely act of rebellion against the system, deeply pessimistic about the possibility of it ever working in the people’s favor. It advocates for a stiff drink.