The Book of Job set in contemporary Russia
Technically a 2014 release (in time to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards), Leviathan continues its limited release across North America. If it’s still playing in (or coming to) your local theatre, don’t miss the chance to see this gorgeous and magnificent film on the big screen.
Just to see how much alcohol the characters in the film consume is enough to make you cry, and that is only one of many sad things about life in modern Russia.
Great Russian films are a rarity these days and it’s amazing this one ever got made (and released), and that it was supported by the Russian film industry and offered up proudly as a representative for Best Foreign Language Film. That’s because Leviathan has been the subject of much criticism and controversy in Russia for the way it depicts the Russian government and the life of the Russian people in 2014. The controversy, at least, is well-deserved, for Leviathan is a scathing indictment of all levels of Russian government (from small towns up) as well as of the Russian Orthodox church, and it does not provide a complimentary view of life in Russia today.
Leviathan is set in a north Russian fishing village (on the coast of the Barents Sea), the kind of place where one would expect to find a lot of grey skies and stark landscapes. The film doesn’t disappoint, presenting (with its beautiful cinematography) a location which appears almost as bleak and relentlessly depressing as the lives of those who live there.
(Minor spoiler alert) The film’s protagonist is Kolya (played by Aleksey Serebryakov), a car mechanic who, like the Biblical Job (referenced a number of times in the film), is about to lose everything, including his home, his family, his friends and his freedom. While his quick temper and stubborn nature contribute to these losses, the losses are largely undeserved and the result of other people’s “sins”, not his own. Despite clearly being a victim, Kolya receives little helpful support from his friends (as in Job). So he turns to the bottle for solace, drinking vodka like water (a common trait among the people who live in his village).
Meanwhile, Kolya’s wife, Lilya (played by Yelena Lyadova), who is also a central character in the film, finds herself desperately unhappy with her life. She feels unloved (especially by her 12-year-old stepson, Roman) and useless at home and bored with her work in a fish factory. Her attempts to find happiness prove singularly unsuccessful and she, too, will consume large quantities of vodka, while Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev) looks on, unable to comprehend what is happening to his parents.
If Leviathan sounds depressing, I can assure you it should. Just to see how much alcohol the characters in the film consume is enough to make you cry, and that is only one of many sad things about life in modern Russia, which include, as mentioned earlier, the corruption of most government and church leaders (and how they work together in that corruption).
There is a scene in which a local priest is seen trying to help the poor in his village, but even that scene appears to be an indictment for the failure of both church and state to adequately care for the people in their charge. The film’s title refers to Job 41, where God is speaking to Job about the incredible power of the Leviathan, as if Leviathan, the film, is asking what anyone can do against the powers that be. It may also be asking where God is in the life of Kolya and the people of his village. The answer, according to Leviathan, will certainly not be found in the church.
Leviathan is a very long film, but it did not feel long to me because I was fully engaged in every sad moment of it, thanks to the flawless direction by Andrey Zvyagintsev and the writing of Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin. The phenomenal acting by all concerned didn’t hurt either.
Leviathan is a brave, extraordinary, thought-provoking film, certain to make my top-ten list of 2015. It is not to be missed unless you find it difficult to watch long relentlessly-depressing foreign films.
Leviathan is rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.