Leviathan: A twisted homage to Putin’s Russia

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is being billed by cinemas as the tale of a provincial car mechanic who takes on a corrupt mayor to save his family home. Critics have called the film a “a beautiful, bleak satire for Putin’s must-see list” (Independent), “a savagely powerful portrait of Putin’s Russia” (FT), and “a scathing indictment of Russia under Putin” (NYT Arts Beat). Multiple reviews in The Guardian suggest that this “Putin-bashing film” has somehow “slipped under the authorities’ totalitarian radar”.

Reading some of the reviews, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film was inspired by the biblical tale of David and Goliath – not the Book of Job. Here is the thing you need to know about Leviathan: it doesn’t end happily. Yes, critics will get excited about the oblique references to Putin and to Pussy Riot. However, the film that I saw veered for the most part between pouring scorn on everyday Russian venality, and offering a twisted homage to the almighty new Russia.

While there has been something of a shadow over the film’s domestic release, Zvyagintsev has repeated again and again that the Oscar-nominated film is not an attack on Putin, and that he wants to live and to work in Russia in future. Conclusion: Zvyagintsev has attained the position of tolerated critic, which can only mean that there is something in his film that Russia wants the outside world to see.

The nature of the beast

It’s not hard to imagine what that something might be. The film opens and closes with panoramic shots of the Barents Sea – vast, cruel, and eternal. It’s a stark reminder of the ‘real’ Russia, the one that exists outside the imaginations of hysterical newspaper columnists. A harsh yet mesmerising landscape, a ramshackle town in the middle of nowhere, an empty space that swells with unexpected life, a rough and non-conformist populace, far removed from the relentless tides of western public opinion. The elusive character of Lilya, one moment baring her sexuality in a dimly-lit hotel room, the next moment gutting fish in a factory line, suggests the mysterious (and possibly feminine) depths of the Russian soul. Oh, so you think you know Russia? Guess again.

It’s not just the Russia countryside that comes across as vast and imposing and incomprehensible, it’s also the system by which it operates. Here is where many critics attempt – and in my view, fail – to sink their hooks into Putin himself, to read the film as straight-up subversion. What Zvyagintsev reveals is not simply the power vertical that stretches from the Kremlin, to the Duma, to the governors, to the municipalities. The film displays the inner workings of the notorious sistema, and how high-level corruption is sustained by the everyday collusion of ordinary citizens – a kind of organic corruption that you are guaranteed to witness if you spend enough time in Russia.

It also shows how this duplicity spreads from public life into private relationships. If Kolya is such a champion of righteousness, why are his best friends a couple of corrupt traffic cops, and why does he hit his wife? If Dima really believes in the justice system, why does the case come down to blackmail by means of kompromat, a file on the mayor’s doings that we hear is the stuff of pure horror? And why does he betray Kolya? Why does everyone curse like a sailor? Leviathan exposes the naiveté of western concern for poor, innocent Russians, by claiming that there is no such thing as an innocent victim.

The rule of law does not exist

The film casts repeated doubts on the core concepts of liberal democracy: human rights and the rule of law. “You have no rights, you never had, and you never will have,” the mayor tells Kolya, in a drunken showdown that features briefly in the trailer. So you brought a fancy lawyer all the way from Moscow? No matter. We will terrorise you. We will bulldoze you. We will destroy you. One of the most arresting moments in the film is when the camera lingers on a young couple sobbing in the corridor of the local courthouse. A few seconds later, the narrative moves on, and the young couple is lost forever. For me, that was one of the few truly subversive moments, because it seemed to point away from fiction and back into a real life with endings just as unhappy as this one.

Perhaps that was first the point at which I found my thoughts turning to Irina Zelenina, an environmental activist who campaigned against illegal construction work in the area around Moscow. On July 22nd, she was hospitalised after a violent attack in which her two year old daughter was killed. Zelenina was in a coma for eight weeks, and died on September 16th. Zelenina kept a blog in which she reposted her correspondence with local authorities, interspersed by photos of her with her daughters and horses. She also ran for local elections in 2013. Naturally, there is no evidence that her murder was politically-motivated, but her story all too easily inscribed itself into the events unfolding on the screen in front of me.

However, in Leviathan it’s not just faceless thugs or political henchmen that are to blame for the tragic outcomes. Kolya’s own innocence is also called into question. In the plotlines that play out around his wife and his lawyer, you are left wondering: how much of this suffering did he bring on himself? How much did he bring on other people? There’s a scene with an Orthodox priest towards the end of the film, where Kolya, a ruined man, asks him “Where is your compassionate God now?” “I know where my God is,” the priest replies. “I don’t know about yours though.” Sure, you can read this as the hypocritical distancing of the Church from social injustice. Or you can see in it a barbed attack on western institutions that have proclaimed the universality of individual human rights.

Critical or realist?

Viewed in the above light, what becomes of the film’s purported criticism of Putin? It’s certainly an overall negative depiction of Russia, but in itself, that doesn’t mean a standing up to power. There’s plenty in there to amuse an audience, but is there anything that will shock people into action? The moral of the story, after all, is just to give in, to slip beneath the waves. Struggle is useless. Struggling will only make things worse. So just go out into the countryside. Get drunk. Shoot a little. Embrace your friends. Embrace your enemies. Praise God. Praise Putin. I find myself in agreement with the review in Novaya Gazeta (worth reading in full if you speak Russian), which pronounces the film as “too much”. “Too much vodka, too much chanson, too much anger. And too much despair.”

Aside from those elements, the film is disturbingly realist. I’m glad to see that a lot of attention is being focused on the women in the film, the tragic Lilya and the deadpan Angela. “That’s men,” she says, when her son brandishes a toy gun at Lilya. “First they tell you you’re beautiful, then they try to kill you.” In a country where at least one woman is murdered by her husband every hour, that isn’t a joke. One of the things that jarred me most about the film was that while it seemed to lay the sufferings of Kolya on thick, it didn’t strike a single false note in two areas I was watching in particular – the relationships between women and men, and the character arc for Roma, Kolya’s teenage son from another marriage.

So, maybe this is a story about resistance, but I think it’s more likely to be received as a story of how resistance is inevitably subsumed by power. I suspect that most people who view this film and really reflect on it will end up filtering their response to it through a kind of Doublethink: either they’ll secretly interpret the film as critical, but say out loud that it isn’t, or they’ll believe that it isn’t, but say that it is. The one thing you can’t do is pinpoint the intention behind Zvyagintsev’s stunning cinematography. That remains as elusive as what lurks beneath the Arctic waves.

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