The director of the new Russian movie Leviathan now lives in Canada. This was a wise decision on Andrey Zvyagintsev’s part—because even though Leviathan received grants from the Russian government and was officially selected to represent the country in this year’s Oscar race, at some point in the near future, Zvyagintsev’s career and maybe his life won’t be worth a plugged kopek in his homeland.
Russia’s devolution into a self-dealing tinpot dictatorship with pretensions to grandeur that barely mask a frightening capacity to cause suffering in the pursuit of power is the subject of Leviathan, and everybody there knows it. The film, which has yet to be shown widely in Russia, was celebrated at the Cannes Film Festival last summer. In its wake, Russia’s Ministry of Culture has announced rules banning the release of films “defiling the national culture, posing a threat to national unity, and undermining the foundations of the constitutional order.”
The culture minister, a historian named Vladimir Medinsky, is a nationalist reactionary who intends to exercise his authority to “consolidate the state and society on the basis of values instilled by our history.” According to the Moscow Times, Medinsky has “urged the creation of a ‘patriotic’ Internet and the spread of like-minded films, radio, and television content.” Leviathan is becoming his test case. And with good reason. It’s as subversive of the ambitions of Vladimir Putin and his repugnant lackeys as Medinsky and other budding nationalist totalitarians in the Putin ambit fear it is.
Leviathan tells a small-scale tale about a working-class mechanic named Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) trying to keep his family home from being seized by the town’s charmless and ruthless mayor. Kolya’s troubles do not end there. He has a depressed wife and a teenaged son who seems to be teetering on the edge of delinquency. Kolya’s hopes rest on the shoulders of a slick old army buddy who is now a lawyer in Moscow and who comes to defend him. This leads to an unexpected domestic crisis.
So it’s a small-town melodrama. But it isn’t. If it were, Zvyagintsev wouldn’t have filmed it with the scale of a David Lean epic. The town is on the shores of the Barents Sea, just south of the Arctic Ocean, and in the waters near Kolya’s house lie the shell of a massive shipwreck and the skeleton of a great sea creature. This tells you two things: First, Leviathan is a work that aims for biblical grandeur, with Kolya cast in the role of a present-day Job; and second, that Zvyagintsev is not a subtle filmmaker.
He wants us to understand that what we’re seeing is all of Russia miniaturized. The country’s intractable sociological and political problems are all on display. The casual alcoholism that afflicts all the characters is not incidental, nor is the corruption, both on a grand scale—the mayor’s illicit seizure of Kolya’s property, for example—and a petty one. Kolya’s close buddies in the local constabulary supplement their incomes and flex their muscles at everyone’s expense, including Kolya’s. He may be a close friend of the police chief, but he is also expected to repair the man’s car at a moment’s notice without compensation.
For his part, the mayor justifies his selfish pursuits by hiding behind the heavy black robes of the region’s leading Russian Orthodox priest. When it appears Kolya’s friend from Moscow has come up with evidence strong enough to land the mayor in jail, the mayor expresses his terror to the priest—who tells him that he is an instrument of God and that he must bring his might to bear to defeat his enemies. In a brilliant final scene, we discover, finally, why Kolya’s property is so important to both the mayor and the priest.
Kolya is a classic Russian character, straight out of Gogol’s incomparable story “The Overcoat.” He is an innocent, none too bright, who is incapable of maneuvering around the corruption everyone else takes for granted and tries to take advantage of for personal gain. But unlike the hapless protagonist of “The Overcoat,” Kolya is not even bleakly comic. What happens to him is chilling and unexpected, but it’s perfectly in keeping with Zvyagintsev’s perception that, in Putin’s Russia, injustice is as ever-present as air—and disguises itself when necessary in pompous nationalistic garb.
Leviathan begins verrrry slowly, as Zvyagintsev establishes its mournful and deliberate pace. But as the gears of the plot begin to mesh, it grips, moves, and finally breaks your heart—an experience similar to that of contemplating the descent of Russia from the glorious optimism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union to the self-aggrandizing and defensive nihilism that now seem to have swallowed it whole.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.