It’s not easy being a filmmaker in a country where the government is working against you. Andrey Zvyagintsev is not the most obvious example; there are many other directors in the world who in one way or another have to try to get around dictatorships. In fact, Zvyagintsev even received funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture for Leviathan. But Vladimir Medinsky, the conservative Minister of Culture, was not happy about the film, objecting against the depiction of everyday Russians as vodka-swilling and swearing. Proving why it’s so dangerous to put ignorant men like Medinsky in power, the minister followed up by proposing new guidelines for the ministry, banning movies that ”defile” the national culture. As the film shows, it’s hard to win against a thoroughly corrupt Putin state.
In the town of Pribrezhny, we are introduced to a car mechanic, Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), and his family. He’s the father of a teenage boy, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), who’s finding it hard to accept that his dad married a new, younger woman, Lilya (Elena Lyadova). Kolya is consumed by a legal battle against the town’s mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who’s expropriating the land where his house was built. The mayor says that the town needs to build a telecommunications mast there, and has offered Kolya woefully inadequate compensation.
Kolya, who’s convinced that Vadim is not being truthful, is fighting him in court and has enlisted the help of Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a friend from Moscow who’s a lawyer. Dima is very good at what he does, but underestimates how far the corrupt mayor and his henchmen are willing to go. At the same time, there is unexpected drama within Kolya’s family…
Inspiration from several sources
For the script, Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin drew inspiration from several sources. The director was intrigued by what happened to Marvin Heemeyer, an American welder who became so outraged after a zoning dispute in 2004 that he armored a bulldozer and demolished several buildings in a small Colorado town, including city hall and a former mayor’s house, before killing himself.
The writers also borrowed from the 19th century novella ”Michael Kohlhaas” and the biblical story of Job, which is also the one a priest uses as an example to comfort Kolya in a scene near the end. Our protagonist isn’t terribly impressed, and why should he be? At best, the orthodox church comes across as toothless, unable to help its community, and at worst as corrupt, its leaders conspiring with the politicians against the common man. Leviathan easily invites comparison to the modern Russian society, which was frequently pointed out by critics as the film screened at various festivals in 2014 before its premiere in Russia and elsewhere. But our disdain of Putin is not what makes the film so compelling. Pribrezhny is a fictional town, but the film was enchantingly shot on the Kola Peninsula, its vast isolation underlining the danger of the mayor’s corruption; in a place this remote, who’s really going to challenge him?
The story has tension, but also a bizarre sense of humor in its portrayal of the mayor. He may be a drunken, inept buffoon, but the system is so rigged it makes no difference; he will still remain in power. Madyanov is the cast’s MVP – his mayor is like a cross between Yeltsin and Putin.
What happens between Kolya, his family members and Dima is human and engaging, an additional cross to bear for our protagonist. The final scenes at Kolya’s beautiful home on the coast of the peninsula are truly heartbreaking, a symbol of senseless destruction carried out by a despicable regime.
Leviathan 2015-Russia. 140 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Sergey Melkumov, Alexander Rodnyansky. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Screenplay: Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev. Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman. Cast: Aleksei Serebryakov (Kolya), Roman Madyanov (Vadim), Vladimir Vdovichenkov (Dima), Elena Lyadova (Lilya), Sergey Pokhodaev, Anna Ukolova, Aleksey Rozin.
Trivia: Original title: Leviafan.
Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film. Cannes: Best Screenplay.
Last word: “I love the works of writers such as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov … I feel like they influence every Russian who is a creative person, it’s inevitable, it’s a very important part of our culture. A person who decides to dedicate his or her life to arts can not escape their influence, and certainly there are connotations of Dostoyevsky’s ideas in [my film] ‘Elena’ in particular. I hope that we were able to go into the depths of human nature and to show it or reproduce our discoveries. It’s not like we do it with an official strategy, or that we try to write things with Dostoevsky in mind, he’s just part of our nature, so with my co-writer Oleg Negin, since we speak the same language and we have been working together for a long time, this is our flesh and blood.” (Zvyagintsev, Pop Matters)