In the belly of the beast: Andrey Zvyagintsev's acclaimed 'Leviathan' depicts one man's fight against corruption in modern Russia


Andrey Zvyaginstev’s Leviathan begins with a series of long shots, landscapes and seascapes of the forbidding Barents Sea coast of Russia. It is summer, and the music from the last act of Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten plays on the soundtrack. Another series of similar long shots appear at the end of the film, again to the accompaniment of that same score. This time, it is winter. Glass’ opera is based on the life of the eponymous Egyptian pharaoh, an iconoclast who, with his wife Nefertiti, attempted to establish monotheism more than 1,300 years before the birth of Christ. After Akhnaten died, he was declared an enemy of the state, and Egypt’s traditional polytheistic religion was re-established.

Zvyaginstev’s protagonist in Leviathan, released by Sony Pictures Classics on Dec. 25, is Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov), an auto mechanic locked in a desperate battle with a local government official who wants to seize his land. At first, we see it from above, a clapboard house and outbuildings, obviously workplaces, on a spit of waterfront property separated from the mainland by a bridge. Kolia lives there with his disenchanted wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who works at a local fish-processing plant, and his teenage son (Sergey Pokhodaev) from a previous marriage. In the opening scenes, it is apparent that Kolia’s struggle is longstanding, and has put a strain on the lives of his friends and family.

Slowly, Zvyaginstev reveals what Kolia and Akhnaten have in common, which is an unshakable faith in their cause. The difference in the stature of these two men marks one as a long-suffering Job, and the other as a protagonist of classical proportions. Job is the Biblical Everyman who dares to take God to task for his indifference to human suffering. “In the classical sense, Kolia’s story is not a tragedy, but it is a tragedy,” Zvyaginstev explains, through a translator, “and to emphasize that, we put in those opening and closing landscapes to music.” The rocky, adamantine hills and engulfing tides are obviously symbolic of nature’s indifference and what Zvyaginstev, who characterizes himself as a “believer,” might call God’s insouciance. “We always had in mind the Book of Job,” the filmmaker says of he and co-writer Oleg Negin.

The two men, who have collaborated on three of Zvyaginstev’s four films, including The Banishment (2007) and Elena (2011), won the Best Screenplay award for Leviathan at Cannes this year. In the Bible, Yahweh’s reaction to Job’s complaints is nothing short of contemptuous. He uses his creation of the mighty leviathan as proof of his ultimate authority, belittling Job until he finally capitulates. When asked, in the course of our November interview in New York City, about Kolia’s struggle against the “leviathan of the state,” Zvyaginstev replied: “I think he is not fighting against tyranny. It is that this land belongs to his family, where he has very strong roots. It is his father’s and his grandfather’s land. Kolia is losing his identity.”

Zvyaginstev, who is 50 years old, was born in Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia’s third-largest city. As a young man, he set out to be an actor, but without much success. After a stint in a state theatre troupe, he moved to Moscow, supporting himself through odd jobs and minor roles on TV and in movies. Then, a friend suggested he join a film crew, which led to Zvyaginstev’s first TV directing job. He then caught the eye of Dmitriy Lesnevskiy, the producer of his first feature, The Return (2003), also a tragic story, about two boys whose long-absent father suddenly reappears. It won a Golden Lion at Venice, establishing Zvyaginstev’s well-deserved reputation in world cinema.

Understandably tight-lipped when asked about Leviathan as a metaphor for state-sanctioned tyranny, Zvyaginstev is nevertheless by turns emotional and thoughtful. And, while a discussion of Russian politics appeared to be off-limits, the filmmaker did not hesitate to speak about the historical role of the Russian Orthodox Church.

It is represented in Leviathan by a bishop who is the confidant of Kolia’s tormentor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the mayor who stands to gain if he accomplishes the land grab. “All churches are in league with politicians,” Zvyaginstev says, shrugging his shoulders. In the final scenes, the bishop’s fiery sermon to his flock is about the necessity for a strong central authority, one of the underlying principles of Thomas Hobbes’s 17th-century political treatise, “Leviathan.” The British philosopher’s “social contract” theories arose often during the director’s screenwriting collaboration with Negin. “At one of the festivals, my producer was approached by an Italian lady after the screening,” Zvyaginstev says. “She told him that if the movie featured the Catholic Church, it would be their story, and in Mexico, a man said to me: ‘Replace vodka with tequila and your harsh climate with our warm one, and you don’t even have to change any of the dialogue. It would be about us.’”

Zvyaginstev’s characters consume a good deal of vodka, especially in the picnic scene where Kolia discovers that Lilya is having an affair with his old Army buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov). A Moscow lawyer who favors the same strong-arm tactics employed by the mayor, Dmitri has come to town to represent Kolia in court. The picnic begins as a birthday celebration for one of Kolia’s longtime customers, Stepanych (Sergey Bachurskiy); the men, including Dmitri, Kolia, and Pacha, a policeman and a friend of Kolia’s, consume an entire bottle of vodka before competing in a shooting contest. “All these scenes where they drink liquor, we decided that they should drink,” the filmmaker says, “to make it authentic.” The picnic contains a rare moment of levity, and an unmistakable expression of the screenwriters’ political sentiments: Stepanych, a government worker, has brought along his collection of portraits of past Russian presidents, which he suggests they use for target practice.

Leviathan’s denouement includes a death which could be a suicide or a murder. That, Zvyaginstev explains, was deliberate. Apparently, both Russian and non-Russian audiences were similarly divided in their opinions on the nature of that character’s demise, and while this may speak to the film’s universality, other aspects of Leviathan are baffling absent a fluency in the language. “The local politics, and the argot, especially in the scene where the mayor is speaking on the telephone to his workers,” the writer-director explains, “only some Russians could understand that, and they thought he was ordering a hit.” No one reading the movie’s subtitles in that scene would arrive at the same conclusion. These linguistic or cultural misunderstandings are overcome in Leviathan by Zvyaginstev’s sympathetic protagonist, the only adult in the film who believes he is where he was always meant to be.

Despite the movie’s references to classical tragedy, Zvyaginstev denies that Kolia’s fate springs, in part, from an implacable idealism, about his marriage and the course of his resistance against the mayor. “He is not a hero,” the writer-director says. “Next to the eternal, beautiful and indifferent nature, he is a small person.” Even Kolia’s quiet strength appears to condemn him, but Zvyaginstev says: “Kolia did not choose. Choices were made for him. Things were done to him.” In May, it was widely reported that Russia’s cultural minister Vladimir Medinsky expressed his dislike of Leviathan, yet the movie is that country’s official selection for the Motion Picture Academy’s 2015 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar.