Leviathan battles the beast that is Russian institutional corruption

Leviathan starts out pretty grim and then proceeds to get much worse for its characters as it lumbers along. Not to be mistaken with the excellent documentary of the same name from Sensory Ethnography Lab, this Leviathan is a Russian film from director Andrey Zvyaginstev, whose previous work included the 2003 Golden Lion winner The Return and the cold but evocative Elena from 2011. Leviathan finds the director in similar terrain to those works, with Zvyaginstev opting for a naturalistic lens whose fringes flicker with mythology.

A filmmaker whose fascination lies with the inherent compulsion of human drama, Leviathan finds us engrossed in a fairly simple domestic issue that plays out like a great tragedy, eventually exposing the crippled nature of the contemporary Russian judicial system in the process. It’s curious then that Leviathan was selected as Russia’s official entry for the most recent Academy Awards, but, as Leviathan will inevitably show you, stranger things can happen.

Focusing on a single family and their slow unravelling at the hands of a corrupt public office, we are initially introduced to the tempestuous father Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), his timid wife Lilia (Elena Lyadova) and Kolya’s son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). The family inhabit quite the picturesque location in a small northern town called Pribrezhny, a property that has been part of the family for generations and is now being unlawfully seized by the town’s mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) for an undervalued sum of money.

The problems begin to escalate when Kolya’s old army buddy, and now Moscow lawyer, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) arrives to help him with his appeal. Along with his crack-shot lawyer skills, Dmitri has also brought some significant dirt on the fraudulent mayor in an effort to help steer the courts into favouring Kolya’s case. Unfortunately, neither his courtroom antics nor his mayoral blackmailing skills are up to scratch and the courts rule in favour of the state, setting off a chain reaction of suffering for all involved. Throughout the course of the film, Lilia engages in an affair, Dmitri is physically assaulted by the mayor’s office and Kolya is unlawfully arrested for attempting to file a report against the mayor after he drunkenly trespasses on Kolya’s property. And that’s just the first half of the film.

It’s obvious where the issue begins for the family (and, by extension, all Russians), and it’s in that cramped, unflattering courtroom when Kolya is being read the court’s ruling. As a dizzying stream of words comes flowing out of the judge’s mouth informing Kolya that he must accept the measly amount offered for his land, there is no room for intervention or rebuttal. Zvyaginstev purposefully makes the judge’s reading disorientating in order to make a point about the Russian judicial system; that there is no room for the powerless citizen within its walls. As Kolya and Dmitri soon find out, abiding by the law can only take you so far in Russia, and venting frustration at the system will only get you a one-way ticket to prison.

The ultimate question, then, is: where do you go when the chain of command fails you? Particularly when your elected officials — in this case a drunken, obnoxious mayor — wield all the power and influence. Vadim, who is frequently seen conversing with an Orthodox priest, is a walking definition of hypocrisy and corruption. He might appear to live in the light of the Church, but his faith here is used by Zvyaginstev to make a point about the necessary separation of Church and State, as he constantly seeks out its teaching in order to justify and extend his treacherous acts. A general sense of distrust pervades the film, from the backroom dealings of Vadim’s office being constantly overlooked by a portrait of Putin to the using of other political portraits as shooting targets by Kolya and his friends. Here, Russian politics are far from a public service.

Where Leviathan really lands its punches though is not in the explicit painting of a corrupt justice system, but rather in how that institution affects the individual, namely this small family unit. The first telling sign is the rampant alcohol abuse at the film’s centre. Sure, the characters are Russian and stereotypes abound, but there is certainly something all consuming about the method and frequency of alcohol’s consumption in Leviathan that hints at some agonised existence. There is a heavy weight of hopelessness that hangs over the film, which by its end might almost be played as comically tragic, to its detriment, but is certainly an affecting tone to take for the most part.

Each of the characters contained within appear deeply unhappy, a core emotion that escalates as the situation worsens. Lilia, who is initially is having problems relating to Roma, internalises further when the verdict about their relocation comes through, leading her to pursue escape in the arms of another. It might also have something to do with her unglamorous occupation: a line worker at a fish factory. Roma similarly is having issues adjusting, as he frequently disrespects his stepmother and is hanging out with some questionable kids as he begins to develop his own drinking dependencies. At one particularly traumatic moment in the film, Roma witnesses his parents in an awkward, slightly violent sex act and runs to the safety of a whale’s skeleton that mournfully sits just slightly off his property.

This whale that once was isn’t the first instance of a skeleton we have witnessed, and it won’t be the last time we see a whale. In Leviathan’s opening shots, Zvyaginstev displays a series of magic hour images of hollowed out ships and lonely landscapes. This land is littered with death and destruction, and as the film goes on this linking of decay and whales comes into full focus when Lilia witnesses a whale dancing in the ocean. It’s the turning point of the film, where Leviathan leaps from family drama to family tragedy, something Zvyaginstev has been masterfully building to for over an hour and a half.

It’s also the point at which the disastrous situation begins to jump the shark (or whale, in this case), as the situation worsens to an unwelcomed comedic point. It isn’t that the events that take place inhabit a place of disbelief, rather that the continually increasing oppressiveness of the film almost causes the film to combust. It’s not too dissimilar to that laugh that builds in the pit of your stomach in situations that stretch the boundaries of awkwardness. Laughter here becomes a defence mechanism. It’s probably not the best response to a film as self-serious as Leviathan, but luckily it doesn’t dampen the experience too much.

At the film’s conclusion, Vadim the corrupt mayor, the true victor of the story, sits in a Church service unaware of the irony by which he implicates himself. As the priest stands on high, he asks, “How can a person destroy the foundations of faith, the foundations of morality, and talk about preaching freedom?” The answer is: quite easily, as the camera focuses on Vadim’s expressionless face throughout. Here’s a man who does exactly that, and in a system that not only ignores but abides by his actions, where does that leave the every man? In Zvyaginstev’s film, and in contemporary Russia by extension, this man can only occupy the belly of the beast.

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