Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a cinema of considerable depth and scope with great complexity. At first look, the story appears quite straightforward, and the message of the film seems unmistakably clear. The basic storyline tells us a tale of a helpless car repair shop owner, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), who struggles to fight the corrupt, or rather criminal, mayor (Roman Madyanov) and his gang of government officials in order to keep his property and his family home from being seized. To fight the sinister might of the power-that-be, he enlists his old friend from Moscow, Dmitry, (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to his aid. Dmitry is now a well-connected lawyer with an ace under his sleeve…. Certainly this is the most standard way to describe the plot of this movie, and, from Kolya’s point of view, this is exactly how things begin.
It is all too easy to see this story as a pointed social commentary on the corruption of Russian society under the reign of Vladimir Putin through the eyes of ordinary people, or a biblical parable resembling to The Book of Job. Whilst there are indeed such elements in this movie, merely recycling these interpretations would be a disservice to this feature, the director, and the audience. The most remarkable characteristic of Leviathan is the way it presents to the audience a manifold of differing points of view. Despite its appearance, this narrative contains many stories, and they never merge into one. They occasionally collide, yet they remain separate to the end. For example, if you follow the standard interpretation, this movie is the story of Kolya, and he is an innocent victim of the criminal corruption of Russian government officials. On top of it, he was betrayed by Dimtry, and his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), in the middle of this damning trial. He is not only innocent; he is ‘man enough to forgive his cheating wife’, and still has enough passion for her to spontaneously, and carelessly, engage in a carnal act, as accidentally witnessed by his teenage son, Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev). So, from Kolya’s point of view, this is a tragedy that has absurdly fallen upon an upright, honourable, and innocent man.
However, this is only a fraction of what is happening in this film. The way this story is experienced is quite different for Dmitry, for Roman, and above all for his wife, Lilya. Consider the charge of marital rape pressed against Kolya by the district prosecutor. From Kolya’s point of view, this charge does not make any sense. Yet his inability to comprehend how Lilya might have experienced his sudden burst of passion tells us a lot about their relationship. For Lilya, the tragedy is not only Kolya’s, but more so hers. She is trapped in a miserable marriage and is enduring a soul-crushing job, and add to it the daily insults of her stepson. Her husband never listens to her pleas to leave everything behind and start over at a new place. No amount of reasoning can stop Kolya from fighting the already lost battle. Thus, from Lilya’s point of view, Kolya is certainly the architect of his own downfall. As the local priest puts it, Kolya is simply trying to ‘catch a Leviathan with a fish hook’. As for Roman, Dmitry, and Kolya’s friends, each of them is entitled to his/her own take on this story. Thus, this seemingly straight forward plot is comprised of many stories. Each of them is as real as the other, and each remains completely separated from the other points of view. The fact that these characters are unable to share or to develop a common story is wherein the devastating power of this film lies. The true origin of this tragedy is neither Kolya’s dogged demand for justice, nor the corruption of contemporary Russian society. It is each character’s inability to form a mutual understanding of a shared event in life with his/her most intimate people.
Still, the movie presents a complex manifold of tales as one event with no sign of Rashōmon-esque fragmentation. And this is the point where Zvyagintsev begins to approach Ingmar Bergman. From the beginning, Bergman’s spirit is all too evident. The landscape captured through the lens is not only where every dream dies; it is the place where nothing grows. This is where the skeleton of the dead creature is more present than the living on its shore. The barren landscape in which the drama unfolds reminds us of the icy desolation of Hour of the Wolf, or the opening scene of The Seventh Seal. Better yet, Bergman’s influence is not limited to the topography and the atmosphere. The beauty of Leviathan is that it presents one event, in which the collision and the separation of different stories unfold, without privileging any particular one. And this characteristic, which is so striking about Bergman’s work, makes this film a rare and precious gem in the contemporary cinema. Please be warned though; the beauty I speak of here is of a terrifying kind.