Film review: Leviathan (2014)

leviathan

For Young Earth Creationists, a passage in the Book of Job is sufficient proof that dinosaurs and humans co-existed: a 34-verse description of a mythical, Loch Nessque sea creature whose comparative strength demonstrates man’s weakness and vulnerability (and thus, by extension, necessary submission before God). Its function is that of many of the allegorical works comprising the Hebrew Old Testament: a reminder to the reader to “know their place”; a reminder carved into the ruins of the Tower of Babel and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

I don’t know what the Russian Orthodox view on dinosaurs is, but I doubt that any eastern homily on Job would overlook its core message.  It is a story, after all, of the Creator’s caprices; of a bet with His mate—old Lucifer, strolling into the heavenly congregation like a Middle Eastern Loki—over the lengths to which an individual can be pushed before he snaps. Job is a model of righteousness (i.e. submission), but even he contains an ounce of pride that still needs to be beaten out of him. Once this has occurred (mostly through a series of interminable monologues), he is allowed to prosper once more.

Perhaps the bishops and priests of the Moscow Patriarchate see something Jobian in their church’s own tribulations under communism. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev, however, has a slightly different metaphor in mind with his latest film, Leviathan.

Leviathan‘s narrative is structured around a man trying to save his family home; a sea-surveying chateau that the town’s corrupt mayor has earmarked as the site for a fancy new church. Although the local magistrates – themselves up to their necks in pig-slop – summarily dismiss the landowner’s appeal, he wins a minor coup when an ambitious lawyer friend from Moscow jets in bearing a dossier of mayoral scandals. The powers that be don’t take too kindly to this interference, however, and city hall and small-time family dramas conspire to produce a thoroughly miserable conclusion.

With the time-dishonoured combination of Russian state imperialism and American chest-beating threatening to drop the world into a second Cold War, it should be little surprise that this film was a hit with the US Academy, gaining the ever-so-backhanded compliment of a “Best Foreign Language Film” nomination at the last Oscars. It should be little surprise because Leviathan is a vicious attack on Putin’s kleptocracy; a critique that fails to miss a target, whether it be the country’s rampant political corruption, its countless instances of unlawful imprisonment, ongoing collusion between church and state, the reclamation of Russian nationalism or the increasing limitations on dissent.

These are all worthy topics to explore, and they are done so handsomely; Leviathan‘s cinematography framing swamplands, township and disused buildings with grace and assurance.

If the film has a clear weakness, it’s that it is too schematic. A sub-plot involving infidelity feels plausible, but gratuitous; a device that serves no purpose other than to push the plot along, and to set the (less plausible) groundwork for a later tragedy. The way in which this extracurricular romance is discovered is, likewise, much too predictable, as is the final twist that sees a seemingly superfluous indignity placed on the head of a character who has already lost everything.

But then, so it is with the Book of Job;  the Devil following Job’s mass bereavement and loss of livelihood with a chaser of skin disease. That’s a necessary sequence of events to put him in a frame of mind to consider his puniness in comparison with the Leviathan. And so it is with this film, which reminds us of the fate awaiting anyone who dares to stand up to injustice in a system that can accommodate nothing else.

As for the Leviathan, God’s party piece, Zvyagintsev has no intention of allowing his audiences to miss the eponymous allegory. Accordingly, visual reminders appear again and again: a whale appears at a pivotal scene, as does a whale skeleton on a beach elsewhere; while, cleverly, an earth digger is shot at such an angle as to bear a decent likeness of a sea monster as it tears a building apart.

We only get a brief glance of its head once, however, in a photo on the wall of the Mayor’s office; blonde, suited, smiling benevolently as it surveys the dystopia that it and its kind have created.

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