(Warning – contains plot spoilers!)
The pervasive influence of the church over a colonising force whose land-lust is based on the belief that their right is ordained by God, and that authority and might are synonymous with power, has more than a passing resonance to the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s Henry V. And yet, having just watched Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (released in 2014), I can see in this stunning film a work of Shakespearean magnitude not only in its portrayal of political intrigue and its impact on the lives of both the powerful and the plebeian, but also in the way that human passions are inexorably bound up with chaos, manipulation and self-destruction.
The film tells the story of the struggle between one man and the forces of the state. Alexey Serebryakov plays Kolya a car mechanic whose house and property, a highly coveted plot of real estate situated on the coast, has been appropriated by the town’s mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov) who intends to develop the land for the town’s ‘greater good’. Aided by Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) his lawyer friend from Moscow, Kolya attempts to resist Vadim’s relentless pursuit of his property. Despite losing an initial court battle, Dmitri’s knowledge of Vadim’s shady past, along with his possession of some incriminating evidence, threatens to turn the tide towards Kolya. This, along with a little blackmail of course, appears to keep the wolves at bay; indeed, as the film progresses, Vadim threatens to become its MacGuffin, as the narrative is drawn more and more into the triangular relationship between Kolya, and his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and Dmitri (who share a little more than Kolya’s acquaintence), and the return of repressed passions and tensions begins to take on Bergman-esque proportions, with Serebyakov possessing more than a passing resemblance to a weather-beaten Max von Sydow. However, Mayor Vadim returns to the narrative with ruthless – but not unsurprising brutality – in the film’s dramatic turn which leads ultimately to Kolya’s slow capitulation to the forces of the metaphorical Leviathan which threatens to swallow him whole.
Leviathan of course reminds us of Thomas Hobbes work of the same name in which he remarked that life without society would be nasty, brutish and short. The organising systems of the social body in this film however become a steamroller which crushes non-compliance in its path. In Zvyagintsev’s film, the concept of the leviathan becomes a symbol of the historical forces that have come to define Russian society. The power of the church and the state itself is exquisitely drawn by Zvyagintsev: in one Kafkaesque scene, Dmitri attempts to deliver his friend’s defence papers to someone, anyone, in authority who will listen, only to find that there is no one around to receive them. As he goes from one state office to the next, Dmitri is ultimately confounded. The state becomes a faceless, formless body, its inner workings labyrinthine. In a courtroom scene, a state official recounts Kolya’s case in a one-breath, monotonous litany that seems to sum up the dehumanised forces against which Kolya is pitted. Subversive images of Pussy Riot on the TV and a picture of Putin in Vadim’s office add to the sharp political commentary (surprisingly, the film was submitted by Russia as its state sponsored entry for the Oscars), as does the film’s most humorous scene in which Kolya and Dmitri go hunting with friends. Having run out of empty bottles to use as target practice, they decide on portraits of past Russian rulers. But not Putin: not because of its director’s fear of reprisals but because, according to Kolya’s friend Ivan Stepanovic (Sergei Bachursky), more time has to pass in order to get some sort of historical perspective.
But it is also the power and corruption of religion that forms the narrative’s central premise. An early scene involves Vadim in conversation with an Orthodox priest who lectures him on the importance of power and might and how the two are mutually desirable and indeed vital to success. The irony of this scene is pointed up later on when Kolya meets a less pompous although equally portentous clergyman whose dishevelled appearance puts him one step up from poverty. In this scene, Kolya is told the story of Job (with whom the director is keen to draw parallels) and is reminded of the biblical Leviathan, against whose might all human resistance is weak.
And there is a mythical grandeur about this film, despite its small town setting. Or because of it. The village lies on the north coast of Russia, its combination of wooden fishing houses and austere concrete buildings is juxtaposed magnificently with sublime imagery of desolate hills falling away onto barren coastland ravaged by the relentless power of the Barents Sea. Close-ups of rock formations, their strata signifying the slow erosion of time chimes with the equally affective images of decaying fishing boats and, in the film’s most portentous image, the enormous skeleton of one of the whales that populates the coast. These images of time and decay lend the film its most significant meaning: that the actions of human beings are of little consequence in the grand, cosmic scheme of things. In fact, the skeleton itself alludes to Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, whose broken statue remains as a warning to all of the vicissitudes of time and of man’s hubris: “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”.
The final image of the church which has been built upon Kolya’s land is breath-taking in its hypocritical rendering of a world in which power and might will always succeed. Kolya, Dmitri and Lilya become merely ciphers for the Leviathan’s relentless progress. However, the film’s most enduring image, of the whale-skeleton on the beach, becomes also its most powerful symbol in that geological time includes now and all our works will ultimately crumble to dust.