The Leviathan in Our Life

The Leviathan is a biblical sea monster that represents evil and Satan according to Christianity, but it also appears in numerous folk legends in its various forms, whereas in modern use the word is synonymous with a powerful monster. As the name suggests, this film makes no attempt at lifting the viewer’s spirits. Instead, it engages the viewer with its dark and difficult themes, and its symbolism will keep you thinking for a long while after watching it. The film Leviathan is a multi-award-winning Russian drama from 2014, directed by renowned director Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a modern interpretation of the biblical story of Job. According to the Zvyagintsev, the film was inspired by the case of Marvin Heemeyer in the U.S., who found himself in a hopeless situation because of the local authority’s abuse of their power just like Kolya, the protagonist of Zvyagintsev’s film.

Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov)

The Plot

The tragic plot of the film takes place in the outskirts of a small town on the shores of the Barents Sea, where Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) lives with his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his teenage son Romko (Sergey Pokhodyaev). The family is being persecuted by the local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) who is trying to steal the land on which their house and Kolyna’s workshop are located. In order to save his family home, Kolya calls his old friend army friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who now lives as a successful lawyer in Moscow, for help. In a rigged trial, Kolya loses his property and is offered a fifth of its actual value as compensation. As if the inflicted injustice was not satisfactory enough, the corrupt mayor visits Kolya to further mock the misfortune of the commoner. The only way out for Kolya and Dima is to gather evidence against the powers at be and fight for justice through blackmail.

After appealing the court’s decision, Kolya is sent to jail for disruption of peace, and Dima goes to a meeting with the mayor to show him the evidence he has gathered against him. If Vadim goes on to confiscate Kolya’s property and does not release him from jail, Dima says he will publish the evidence, which would spell a loss of position and power for the mayor. During their conversation, Dima mentions his acquaintances in Moscow, which attributes more importance to him in the eyes of the provincial mayor. I find this scene important insofar as it shows the post-communist provincial mentality that incites fear of those who hold power. It is not the individual who matters, but the hierarchical positions of their acquaintances.

In the short period of Kolya’s absence, Dima and Lilya engage in sexual activity. Although their story is not elaborated any further, this event greatly affects the overall outcome of the film. Kolya has a violent reaction to this adultery, albeit the violence is never shown explicitly. Lilya soon returns to Kolya, feeling the condemnation for what she had done. Her stepson Romka criticizes her actions most vigorously, blaming her for all the misfortune that befell the family.

Kolya with his friends

Dima stays in town for a short while longer and tries to make a deal with the mayor that would go in Kolya’s favor, but the mayor takes him away from the city, assaults him and threatens him with death. After that, we see Dima one last time, on a train heading to Moscow. Lilya’s last appearance is comprised of a walk by the cliffside. She is in a distracted mental state, presumably caused by remorse and the hopeless situation in which she now finds herself, because it is already clear that they have to move out and sell all of their possessions. All that we are told of her after this point is that Kolya was convicted for Lilya’s murder, and it is up to the viewers to decide for themselves what really happened to her. Romka, who is still a minor, is cared for by family friends. The way to the complete destruction of Kolya’s former property is now clear.

The Social Environment

The film ends tragically, but predictably for anyone who is familiar with the real-life social issues that are portrayed in the film. The plot of Leviathan is not as important as its atmosphere and the complex emotions of the characters, which make it so the viewer cannot remain indifferent for long. We learn about the characters through their spontaneous, incidental, everyday dialogues. The fantastic performance given by the actors offers an insight into the peculiar mentality and reality of the Eastern European way of life, making it seem that the film is actually a documentary; that the actors are not acting, but living out the film’s plot.

The main character Kolya represents an ordinary and simple provincial man who is actually above average when compared to other people with the same background, as strange as that may sound to anyone who hasn’t lived in such communities. He shows that he is extraordinary through his attitudes towards his wife, home, tradition, and the fight he fights against the Leviathan. His misfortune is that he lives in the wrong place and among the wrong people, in an environment that stifles even the slightest initiative. People who attempt to create something of their own or fight injustice are systematically erased so that others wouldn’t raise their voice.

Romka sitting next to a whale skeleton

Many have criticized film’s length, stating that 140 minutes is too long; that everything could have been said and done in far less time. I am of the opinion that the length of the film serves to create more agony, that it deepens the suffering of both the characters and the viewers. Indeed, the viewer will most likely want everything to end as soon as possible, not because it is too long, but because it is too difficult to watch.

The church serves an important role in the film, being closely connected with the authorities. Not only is it well-acquainted with the details of their operations, but also of the private lives of the local leadership, which results in both parties mutually benefiting. The word “Leviathan” is mentioned only once during a dialogue between Kolya and a priest. After all the tragedies that befell Kolya, from the death of his beloved wife to the loss of his home, the priest tells him that God’s ways are strange and that there is no need to fight the Leviathan, because nothing could be done about it anyway, hinting at the fact that fighting against the authorities and the mayor is futile.

I particularly liked the very clear social criticism expressed in the ironic last scene in which the pious mayor gathered with his family and the other believers, listening to a sermon on the truth in church. Truth, they say, is most important because God sees and knows everything, with which the mayor as a pious man sincerely agrees, at least while he is in church.

The film shocked the Russian public, most likely because many had recognized themselves in it, and they did not like what they saw, no matter their social status. The state of society being presented, the living and moral standards of the people did not correspond to the image that Russia wants to send to the world. The film echoed around the world, receiving numerous awards and nominations at various film festivals, and was even nominated for the Best International Feature Film category at the 2014 Oscars.

Leviathan is now recognized as one of the classics of Russian cinema. It is a film I would recommend to everyone, especially if you want to have a better understanding of the problems facing the societies of the former Soviet Union. One thing I would like to stress is that you make sure to arm yourself with patience and prepare for deep philosophical reflection before watching.

Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Written by: Andrey Zvyagintsev, Oleg Negin

Starring: Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov


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