Most countries (if not all) have elephants in the room. Russia, according to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film, has a giant whale. Some refer to Leviathan as a dark comedy, but we really doubt anyone could smile while watching it. Actually, we will not recommend viewing this nominee for the Oscar of Best Foreign Film (and winner of the Golden Globe for the same category) if you’ve been feeling down lately, powerless against the higher powers, or just having a rough path in life, really.
In this modern retelling of the Book of Job, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is at open war with the city’s mayor who wants to demolish his house, where he lives with his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his son from his first marriage, Roman. Moscow friend Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) comes to help, but his arrival sets up a succession of events that will destroy Kolya further than he could ever imagine. The themes are not as subtle as Zvyagintsev’s The Return – the final scene at the church almost works as a chorus echoing the story’s moral, which was far from necessary – but, again, this is a grimmer tale (and for those who watched the director’s first feature, I know, hard to believe). The water symbols (a director’s obsession) have a strong presence, whether as the inclement sea, always heard in the background, or as the final snow. All gains a religious quality (fitting for a biblical story) with the breathtaking, mantra-like soundtrack by Philip Glass. The landscapes are bare, stunning on their man-less quality, coloured in bluish tones, courtesy of Mikhail Krichman’s lens, building and matching the mood of the story.
Being Russia’s official submission to the Academy Awards, we do wonder – is everything okay, guys? For sure this is not a happy, propagandistic portrait of the old communist empire, and it does not work as tourism advertising either. In Leviathan, we’re shown how bureaucracy commands the country, and though everyone knows the Law by heart, that does not mean anyone follows it. When the small fish defies the big whale, we may think the small fish has a chance – after all, he is playing the mammal on his own dirty game. But, alas, this is not Hollywood, and not even Moscow. Those are stupid dreams very far away, out of reach for our characters. Kolya refuses to surrender to the easy way out and put on the pink Moscow glasses. He chooses to remain in this world where the only things left are skeletons and ruins, and the righteous have no chance agains those in power.
True, there’s kind of a “whodunnit” that never gets an answer, and some narrative strands are left hanging, but that’s because Zvyagintsev always prefers the audience to make their own mind. And the main question also remains:
Does God really see everything, little ones?