Leviathan has aroused considerable controversy in its native Russia, apparently for portraying local authorities and the church in a light less than glowing; the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky accused Zvyagintsev of playing up problems within Russia in order to win foreign accolades. (The Ministry of Culture co-financed the film, so the criticism might seem odd, but Zvyagintsev’s earlier films, particularly The Return, brought international praise and comparisons to Tarkovsky, and were not overtly political). That he has won the foreign accolades is not in doubt, as the film tops many “best of” lists from the past year, yet this is hardly a shocking expose. In fact, Western viewers will no doubt see much that is overly familiar in the corruption portrayed in the film (the fact that the film is fairly subtle and does make Russia look like every other capitalist kleptocracy probably counts against it rather than mitigates). The film concerns Nikolai, a somewhat hot-headed auto mechanic and independent businessman in a small Russian town who happens to own a nice piece of property, generations-old, overlooking an inland sea that is drying up (symbolism alert!). The mayor of the town covets the property, and so requisitions it to build a “community center.” The film portrays the blow-back from the Mayor and his cronies as Nikolai tries to fight the acquisition, with the help of an old friend from Moscow, Dmitriy, a well-connected lawyer. I won’t say much more on specifics, since the slow unfolding of Nikolai’s fate pretty much is the film, but needless to say things work against him, and by the end of the film, he finds himself in dire straits.
There is much to like about the film, most significantly in the open-endedness of many of the sequences, which often softly set us up for one type of payoff and deliver something less expected. Likewise, the portrait of a man against the system is not strident, as by the end viewers could see Nikolai’s afflictions as the result of so much bad luck, general bull-headedness, the course of life playing out or as a top-down conspiracy. It is true that the religious figures in the film don’t fare well, ranging from a kind of bleak “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” existentialism to providing full-on corrupt moral cover to political misdeeds of all stripes; even so, one gets the sense that the Job-like struggles of the Russian everyman are, in Zvyagintsev’s view, the natural state of things in Russia. In this, the film follows in a long tradition of Russian pessimism (although this particular tale is mostly punishment without the crime). The film has weak areas: the symbolism, such as the Job connection, explicitly referenced within the film, is heavy-handed at times; the Philip Glass style undulating score is weak and grating (although thankfully saved for the beginning and end). You could argue that it’s overly long. I just didn’t find it any more or less compelling than other “grinding a man down” art films of yore. I must say that I often find Russians unsympathetic and cold anyway, so it wasn’t hard for me to buy into this as another entry in the “same old story” of life sucking in Russia.