Text by Jukka Tyrkkö, Pia Koivunen & Heikki A. Kovalainen
Leviathan is one of the internationally most recognized Russian films of the last decade. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (1964-), the film was released in 2014 to rave reviews and much controversy. A bleak, uflinchingly naturalistic depiction of a layman’s life in contemporary Russia, Leviathan was enthusiastically received in the West – and it’s been this very enthusiasm that’s made the Russian authorities somewhat nervous.
Putting it briefly, Leviathan is a story about a man who loses everything. The tragedy takes place in a fictitious small town by the sea near Murmansk, in North-West Russia. The local administration, especially the mayor of the town, Vadim, wants to expropriate a property on the Barents sea coast in order to redevelop the region. The owner of the property, a middle-aged mechanic Nikolai (Kolya) doesn’t want give up without a fight and takes the case to court. What follows is a Kafkaesque battle between a little man and corrupted local administration.
Reactions to the film have been very mixed in Russia. The current Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinski, has accused the director for trying to court Western audiences. The film was warmly received in the West, indeed, and it’s been precisely this enthusiasm that’s made the Russian audiences somewhat nervous, as they’ve found the film to be depicting contemporary Russia in a disturbingly grim light.
At the same time, Leviathan has been praised for taking a fearlessly realistic and honest look at modern life in Russia, for depicting the plight of the underdog fighting the system, and above all, let us not forget, for its hauntingly masterful cinematography.
We had the pleasure of watching Leviathan in one of the IASR film sessions, preparing ourselves for the upcoming Winter Seminar to be held in St. Petersburg. Discussion on the film touched on various themes, for instance, the relationship between the state and the church.
The question was raised as to whether Zvyagintsev’s film presents criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, or of the illicit bond between religion and state, more generally. As a Russian film critic Yury Gladilshchkov puts it, “the film is about the faith of current Russia, about the horrible Leviathan, a corrupted state without honour and conscience, where the church safeguards the state, while the Christ is, in fact, privatised by criminals (bandits).”
Certainly, in a Russian context, one cannot help seeing the critique’s teeth gnawing primarily at domestic issues, yet a more general argument may be drawn out from the film as well. In the film, the mayor Vadim makes appeals to God – via his confessor – to justify his ruthless behavior towards Kolya. Implicitly, the film may be taken to suggest, then, that any attempt to use God to justify the state’s actions against the interests of the individual is unjust. We’re assuming that a Western spectator, at least, will side with Kolya in the way she views the film, finding the mayor’s actions without any moral footing.
Finally, a hypothesis was outlined during the discussion that there are perhaps two genres of film qua social critique. There are films, on the one end of the scale, that invest abundant energy in depicting characters’ emotions – to the extent of using melodramatic conventions – and among these, Ken Loach’s films are perhaps the prime example.
On the other end of the spectrum, social criticism can be practised via the medium of film in the Bressonian tradition. Within this genre, the director is concerned with showing incidents happening to the characters but without showing their emotions; rather, emotions are left for the audience to experience. On our view, Leviathan falls within the latter tradition – and it is precisely in the film’s dispassionate portrayal of the underdog’s fate where the power of the film lies.