Forty-seven years ago I read the Hobbesian treatise “The Leviathan” in a history seminar course. The Russian film “Leviathan” has urged me to return to “the Spark Notes”. Espousing a society where the individual gives up something valuable to a central sovereignty so that society can peacefully prosper does not happen in this picture. The powerful monster instead intimidates and produces more despair. No fear is lessened. No peace ensues. Certainly, justice is rendered null. More than a human story, this is an ideological one.
Yet, as always, it is the human story that moves us. This film is perfect for the Lenten season. The suffering of the protagonist is so profound that one feels one is viewing the stations of the cross in real time. This is no mustard seed parable. There is no shelter. The cherished home that has served as such is dismantled in heartrending frames that wreck everything dear about the importance of place. Here, the place is the 1929 homestead of Kolya and his grandfather before him, and by metaphor, the place where the human spirit lives.
The 2014 winner of the best screenplay in Cannes, “Leviathan” is emotionally unsettling. The Philip Glass twelve-tone scale and his score from the opera “Akhnaten” adds to the film’s tension and crushing downward spiral. Like with Job,the working class Kolya’s travails keep escalating. Aleksei Serebryakov is now “my face” of contemporary Russian. He is incredible in this film, and interesting personally. Serebryakov emigrated to Canada with his family in 2012 citing Russian government corruption and obstacles in raising his children in the current political environment. He brings this passion to the screen. His Kolya will have you marveling at his humor as a traffic patrolman follows the rules that are to keep this common man in his place. Kolya’s sarcastic query, “Polished your badge ,today?” even makes the enforcer smile. The scene is set. Here is a man who just wants to keep what is his which is .66 acres of house,green house and car garage shop. 650 rubles will be paid on a premiere setting worth 3.5 million rubles.
Interesting too, the film’s co-writers,Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin,were said to have been inspired by the U.S. Marvin Heemeyer’s bulldozer rampage. In the film, it is the state that goes on the rampage. Kolya is not a “hothead”. There is no blood dripping from his hands. He is forgiving, in love with his wife, even after she is found to be adulterous with his best friend. Kolya is a caring and responsive father who calls his teenage son “wandering spirit” and seems to understand his unacceptance of his stepmother. “Forgive her, she is a good person”Kolya guidingly tells his son.
“Leviathan” was filmed in the village of Teri Berka. Cool blues and stormy grays dominate the wide screen shots. Light is noticed in the spark from a cigarette, in the tail lights of a car, in street lanterns, in headlights, in the dawn, in lamp light through a window, on a TV screen ~all before any dialogue is spoken. If there is any illumination, the camera relishes it. Portraits are used in conjunction with sweeping panoramas of Northwestern Russian seascapes. Whether these are icons of saints or images of the suffering Jesus, whether they are headshots of past Russian leaders or Putin, himself~all are used to show that Kolya recognizes authority that has contributed to his pain.
Equal rights and rule of law are not here. “Kissing upward and kicking downward” is what we see. Key events occur off screen with the drift and the sound of sea spume. You will be left with Kolya’s sobs and a new sense of why Russians drink so much vodka. If there are self-serving power mongers at the top of the hill,”there are lots of assholes at the bottom of the hill”,too. “Teach him to know his place” becomes the mantra of tragedy. See this film with a trusted friend who understands “Let’s have a numbing drink”. You will be rewarded with gratitude and empathy in abundance.