The best works of art, in film and in literature in general, often have a multilayered quality. They can be enjoyed and appreciated on one level, while additional levels of meaning and significance reveal themselves for those who are open to them. This is the effect that Leviathan, the latest film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, has had on me ever since I saw it recently. On the surface, it’s a compelling, realistic drama about a man’s resistance to government persecution and how it affects his family. But it also resonates symbolically into deeper meanings—social, political, and spiritual.
A man named Kolya, played by Alexsey Serebryakov, lives in a windswept coastal town on the Volga River in Russia, where whales can sometimes be seen migrating from the Caspian Sea. The picture opens with him picking up an old army buddy, a lawyer named Dmitri, played by Vladimir Vdovichenkov, who arrives by train from Moscow. The visit is not purely social. Kolya lives in a large house on the river that has been in his family for generations. But the mayor of the town has pushed through a decree to demolish his home to make way for a lucrative building project. Kolya has enlisted his friend to fight this decree in the courts, and Dmitri seems confident that some dirt that he has turned up on the mayor should do the trick. We become aware thatt his battle has been going on for some time—the stress has taken its toll on Kolya, and especially on his wife Lilya, played by Elena Lyadova. In her face we can see the weariness and exasperation, not only from the protracted legal battle, but from Kolya’s bitterness and short temper. To make matters worse, Kolya’s teenage son from an earlier marriage doesn’t like her. We witness vividly the toll taken on a family just by one of its member resisting unjust authority.
So that’s the set-up, and Zvyagintsev amps up the tension with an ominous feeling that is hanging over the entire film. One level of commentary on contemporary Russian society is evidenced by the rampant alcoholism which is taken for granted. A sequence where the family and some friends have a barbecue and indulge in some target shooting while drinking ungodly amounts of vodka is funny in a strangely grim sort of way. Another level of significance emerges in the masterful portrayal of the mayor, a sullen, self-centered bully and drunk played by Roman Madyanov. Evil, we notice, is not glamorous or demonic, but usually boring and stupid, albeit incredibly persistent. The film opens up yet another level of meaning when we observe that the mayor is close friends with the local priest, a bearded, distinguished looking patriarch with many fine words about faith and honor and virtue.
The name of the film, Leviathan, refers to a legendary beast mentioned in the Book of Job from the Bible, often identified by later authors with the whale. In an important scene, the priest refers to this beast in a conversation with Kolya, and it seems to represent the unfathomable and overwhelming power of a wrathful or indifferent God. We may also notice a resemblance to the Russian state, immovable in its corruption and routinely unjust. The name Vladimir Putin is never mentioned—I don’t suppose the director could have mentioned it without being censored at least—but we get the message.
Near the remains of old ships on the shore, now abandoned, there is a skeleton of a whale. At one point we also see a live whale. The bleak and forbidding beauty of nature is somehow linked with the ugliness of human struggle. Leviathan is that rarity, a genuine tragic work of art.