Leviafan (Leviathan)

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviafan (Leviathan) turned out to be quite a depressing film – but there again, how often do we go and see a cheerful one?! This film has been described as a modern re-telling of the Book of Job, and Kolya, the main character, does indeed suffer a similar fate to the Old Testament prophet. He loses his home, his livelihood, his wife, his friends and eventually his freedom, but that’s where the similarity ends. Job’s sufferings are sent to him by God – and a less God-like figure than the corrupt mayor who is responsible for Kolya’s problems can hardly be imagined. Job also regains his health, wealth and family at the end of the story and lives happily ever after, but there are no signs of that happening to Kolya; his ending is anything but a happy one.

(details below)

The film has also been linked to Hobbes’ Leviathan, in which Hobbes describes the ‘state of nature’, i.e. the human condition before the advent of government and civilisation, as being “a war of all against all” which makes life “nasty, brutish, and short.” What we see in this film, to some extent at least, is a breakdown of civilisation in which law and order are replaced by corruption, where there is nothing to prevent the strong from crushing the weak and becoming ever more powerful. But yet again, that’s where the similarity ends. Bad though 21st. century Russia undoubtedly is, to see it as being equivalent to Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’ would be a bit of an exaggeration to say the least – any war situation comes much nearer the mark.

So what is this film about, and what is it trying to tell us? Nothing very exciting really. It’s just a picture of how bad life can be in a forgotten corner of post-Soviet Russia, with no shortage of poverty, unemployment, government corruption, lack of prospects, post-industrial landscapes, cold weather, and – especially – lots and lots of vodka. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so much alcohol consumed in one film. Most of the characters drink it like water, and frequently get so drunk that they can hardly walk, talk or even stand up (which generally doesn’t prevent them getting into their cars and driving home afterwards!). We see the mayor basically just doing anything he likes, regardless of the law, and manipulating the police and judicial system to suit his own purposes. There’s no way to stop him via the legal system, and when Kolya’s lawyer friend Dmitry tries to defeat him by force (blackmail in this case) he soon discovers who’s strongest. By the looks of things the mayor eventually gets away with murder, and has Kolya framed for it. There was certainly corruption in the USSR, but it was nothing compared to that of the new Russia – especially now that the church has joined in, and is becoming ever more powerful.

But this film isn’t only about corruption. Although Kolya’s story is a particularly miserable one, his friends and neighbours don’t seem a lot better off. They have little money and no prospects, and as people in such circumstances tend to do, they seem to go out of their way to make their own and everyone else’s lives even worse than they need to be. Basically life is bad, without any hope of improvement, and the only way of temporarily escaping the endless depression and boredom is the consumption of vast amounts of vodka. Can life have been worse than this under communism? Extremely unlikely, unless you happened to be a dissident, i.e. actively fighting against the government.

This depressing story is realistically told, with some excellent acting and cinematography. The local landscapes are beautiful in themselves, but frequently gain an extra element of drama with the addition of the remains of extinguished human industriousness. The only negative point of the film for me was the music of Philip Glass used at the beginning and end. I can’t imagine why that music was chosen, as it didn’t fit the film in the slightest. I was a bit worried at the start that we were going to be subjected to it all through the film, but fortunately not. The film itself had no music, which only added to the realism. So, not a jolly film, but one which was very much worth seeing.

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Details:

title Leviafan (Leviathan)
director Andrey Zvyagintsev
released 2014
language Russian
subtitles français
seen 26/01/2015, at the cinema
further information IMDb

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