Leviathan: political thriller meets melodrama in Putin’s Russia

An emphasis on the ruins of the recent past places Zvyagintsev’s film within a very interesting genre of post-Soviet films. Palace Films

Ivan the Terrible (1945), one of Sergei Eisenstein’s most iconic films, explores the historic “symphonia” between church and state in pre-revolutionary Russia and within Stalin’s Soviet Union. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, to be released in Australia tomorrow, also explores this symphonia – under Vladimir Putin.

On the surface the two films are very different.

Eisenstein’s film is loaded with theatrical gesture, religious iconology, all of which displace any sense of a naturalistic setting or of action. Zvyagintsev’s film follows a clear narrative trajectory, deftly but unmistakably blending the gangster film, the political thriller and the family melodrama.

Trailer for Leviathan (2014).

Eisenstein’s film is static whereas Zvyagintsev’s film is on the move, exploring a range of characters. Though the bulk of the action takes place within a small group of friends, he locates each of them across the story into their political, social and moral category.

Eisenstein places the king-priest at the centre of almost every scene, whereas Zvyagintsev places him at the very end, where he literally transforms screen space and time, and takes possession of the central location of the action.

Trailer for Ivan the Terrible (1945).

Most importantly, Eisenstein’s film delineates the continuity between the distant past and the Stalinist present, suggesting the failure of the revolution at every turn, whereas Zvyagintsev’s film emphasises a distinct break between the recent past and the present.

Zvyagintsev’s Russia

As Zvyagintsev’s characters move around a fishing town there is everywhere ruinous evidence of the Soviet communist experiment, including derelict buildings and a derelict church used by local teenagers as a nightly hangout. There is a wonderful night shot of a campfire illuminating the exposed dome frescoes.

This emphasis on the ruins of the recent past also places Zvyagintsev’s film within a very interesting genre of post-Soviet films. One example of these films is Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever(2002), which is set in a neighbourhood that once housed workers and their families and which still houses families but no workers. Like Moodysson’s film and others of the genre Leviathan features a teenager abandoned before his time.

Leviathan (2014). Palace Films

Leviathan is set in a fishing town in Northern Russia, near Barents Sea. To the west lies Greenland and southwest are Finland, Sweden and Norway. The landscape is harsh and vast. The town overlooks the sea. On one of the shores reside the skeletal remains of a gigantic whale.

The town still processes fish but other more political concerns take centre stage. These concerns centre on the land owned and occupied by auto-mechanic Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov) and his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova, also in Zvyagintsev’s earlier film Elena).

The local authorities, led by the mayor, have placed an acquisition order on Kolia’s land and have offered him paltry recompense. Kolia’s dispute has reached the courts and he has enlisted the help of a former army friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) who arrives from Moscow with a dossier on the Mayor that he believes will turn the dispute in Kolia’s favour.

Leviathan (2014). Palace Films

When Dmitri presents the dossier to the mayor it seems to have the desired effect, with the mayor becoming visibly shaken and not a little disturbed by its contents.

This, to me, is where the story really begins because the film splits into a gangster film and a family melodrama. In essence the mayor gets organised as Kolia, his friend Dimitri and Lilya self-destruct.

The reach of the state

The machinations of the mayor remain in the background except for crucial scenes, and the self-destruction of Kolia unfolds towards an end that clearly suggests the Hobbesian notion of Leviathan – the might of the state.

Leviathan (2014). Palace Films

The signs of the gangster film are clear as the mayor is transported by a line of black four-wheel drives, driven by enormous men in black suits that exquisitely match the black robes of the Orthodox god-father.

There is also to my mind a very ominous sense of foreboding that develops across the latter sections of the film, precisely because the liberal belief in the rule of law proves to be lacking not just in its powers to overcome right, but internally, as if lacking the necessary discipline to combat the new leviathan.

Like Zvyagintsev’s other films – The Return (2003) and Elena (2011) – every frame is beautifully composed and captures a terrific, sense of scale and dimension, while at the same time staying very close to human bodies and their interactions.

As with The Return the landscape and the seascape show Russia as a vast open space; as with Elena the interiors and the human interactions reveal a society that is changing in perhaps unpredictable ways.

But Leviathan dramatises, perhaps even allegorises, a future that is also deeply anchored in the past. Eisentein’s Ivan showed that Soviet cinema went hand in hand with critical reflection on the state, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan shows that this tradition continues.

Leviathan opens in cinemas on March 26.