Leviathan is a Russian film that revolves around a few central characters in the coastal township of Teriberka: quick-tempered Kolya, whose property has been acquired for a pittance by corrupt mayor Vadim; Kolya’s depressed wife Lilia; his long-time friend and lawyer Dimitri; and his delinquent son Roma. The film follows Kolya’s battle with Vadim, and is concerned with the far-reaching effects of political corruption.
Firstly, Leviathan is a movie that definitely deserves to be seen in the cinema, with absolutely stunning cinematography of dreary Russian landscapes, religious iconography, Soviet architecture and those absolutely fascinating ugly/beautiful Russian faces which are such a welcome relief from the all-American, often repetitive casting of Hollywood. (Being a massive fan of the epic film Koyaanisqatsi I was also expecting a fantastic soundtrack by Philip Glass, but on this occasion I was disappointed—the composer’s work only features at the beginning and end of the film and is very similar to his previous work).
Leviathan’s exploration of wider social themes is also exceptional. For example, Vadim’s long-standing relationship with the church shows how people justify anything to themselves, as well as the inherent deceit in using the concept of “truth” as a tool of power in a religion as politics. Religion and God are addressed in various ways throughout the film—should we believe in facts over religion or is belief solely in proof an empty way to live? And the age-old classic—“why do bad things happen to good people?” Similarly, law and its abuses is a potent thread running throughout the film, from Dimitri’s initially earnest and successful attempt at acquiring justice (albeit via blackmail), to Vadim consorting with police and other justice officials. The scenes that play out in the courtroom are particularly jarring—the registrar reads out verdicts rapidly and robotically. The judicial process is made to feel inhumane and meaningless.
In some ways this was a film I found somewhat difficult to like. It is so long. And so bleak. Similarly, I didn’t find the personal relationships that believable and I’m not sure how much I really cared about any of the characters. Perhaps this was contributed to by the language barrier but I felt the relationships largely lacked genuine feeling and spontaneity. I call this the empathy assumption—where a film assumes that you will be invested in all its characters by simply setting up a given situation and set of relationships. However, re-creating human connections necessitates a highly subtle crafting, which Leviathan lacked.
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In saying this, the film is very good at depicting figures in isolation—their loneliness and disconnection, their inability to be understood. This was particularly poignant in Lilia’s case, but even the mayor cuts a lonely figure at certain points. And I truly empathised with the characters in these moments. I suppose this may be the crux of it—Leviathan is not a film concerned with the redeeming qualities of human nature and the meaningfulness of our connections with one another. While there can be affection, maybe, the film takes a bleak view of human beings as being inherently self-interested. Thus, we cannot solely blame Vadim and his abuse of the law for everything unfolds—as Dimitri states, “Everything is everybody’s fault”. Similarly, the film redeemed itself by the end, becoming something larger and more significant than the sum of its parts. It was particularly successful in revealing to the viewer on a simple, everyday and very human level the utter devastation and destruction wrought by this kind of politics.
Leviathan is ambitious, epic even and well worth seeing—although ultimately shy of greatness.