SPOILER ALERT: LEVIATHAN
“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?”
I buy some tickets for the UK premiere of Leviathan for a friend who is a huge Andrey Zvyagintsev fan. I myself at this point was not. I remember seeing The Banishment when it came out and being hugely disappointed. I was lured to see it under the promise that Zvygintsev was ‘the new Tarkovsky’ and found that for me, his nationality was where any similarities began and ended. The Banishment had none of the magic that a Tarkovsky film has, none of the soul, just a lot of very forceful sadness and some long takes. I remember feeling it was pretentious, broody and mistook sorrow for purposefulness.
I explain all this to my friend and am told that I need to see Elena and The Return before I am entitled to such a dismissive opinion - I guess that’s fair enough. She had shown me the trailer for Leviathan a few months previous and I hadn’t found it particularly inspiring either. Despite its festival hype, I was slightly worried that I had committed myself to a long and painful film but above all else, I am happy to see her and willing to go along for the ride with an open mind.
As usual I’m running late and have to send my friend a photo of her ticket so she doesn’t miss the beginning of the film. By the time I arrive I am told that I can’t have my designated seat and have to sit somewhere else so I spend the first five minutes of the film fretting and devising a plan to get to my seat without causing too much of a disruption. I’m the only idiot in the theatre not facing the screen but I soon manage to pick out my friend’s face lit up amongst the darkness and via a small detour to the bar, finally manage to get to where I belong.
She immediately fills me in on what I’ve missed: this guy has a kid from another marriage, he’s not getting along with his wife and he has some kind of legal problem that an old army friend who is now a lawyer is going to help him out with. Cool. Let’s get to it.
It soon transpires that this man, Nikolay, is to lose his house, a place that he has built with his own two hands and where he has raised and kept his family. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t best pleased about this. I will try not to go into too much detail with regards to the specific ins and outs, as Leviathan truly excels in its verisimilitude and so is sublimely rich in detail but in the broadest of strokes, the story goes something like this:
The mayor of a fishing town wants to knock down this Nikolay’s house so he can build a church. Nikolay enlists the help of an old friend from Moscow as a legal aid who comes gallantly riding into town to save the day but instead only manages to fuck Nikolay’s wife and then run off back home with his tail between his legs after the mayor takes him out into the middle of nowhere and puts a gun to his head. Nikolay’s family breaks down, his wife commits suicide and he tries to drink all the vodka in Russia. He then gets thrown in jail for killing her, his son gets taken away and then his awesome house gets smashed to pieces. Meanwhile, the grotesque fat cunt of a mayor eats food in a nice restaurant and then stands proudly in the opulent church built on Nikolay’s misery and the film ends.
I know what you might be thinking - sounds like pretty uplifting stuff. Well, not quite but where I found that it differed from The Banishment was that Leviathan was not forcefully sombre at all, the complete opposite. The film was dripping with soulfulness and humility. Although the mayor was a bit of a caricature super-villain, on the whole the characters were charming, complex and inviting. Their journey was not simply a portrait of misery but one filled with love and humour that truly earned my emotional investment and from what I can tell the rest of the audiences too.
For me, Leviathan evokes films like No Country for Old Men whose lack of narrative providence towards its protagonist clearly aims to promote the idea of a nihilistic world where evil can win over good. Or films like A Serious Man where a protagonist is put through the ringer in order to test their faith in an unfair and ungodly world. In this sense however, Leviathan is slightly more unique and infinitely more sophisticated.
Despite its cataclysmic outcome, it didn’t feel like Zvygintsev was pushing his characters towards the edge of a cliff in order to illustrate a narrative point. Impressively, it felt like the filmmaker really loved and cared for his characters but with great restraint gave them freewill and let them go. Leviathan shows rather than tells and as such, reads as an account of what happened to these people without sympathy, prejudice or divine intervention from Zvygintsev. This takes a huge amount of discipline from a filmmaker, the likes of which I have never really seen.
Which brings me to the namesake of the film and the Bible quote told to Nikolay, which I have used at the head of this article. “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?” The answer to which, for those more familiar with Job 41, is no. The passage goes on to say, “If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of it is overpowering. No one is fierce enough to rouse it. Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me”.
Nikolay’s will, no matter how strong, is powerless against the monster that he faces and when he looks to god for an explanation as to why he has been subjected to such misfortune, Zvygintsev refuses to give him an answer. The lesson here being that in life we don’t always get what we want. Or as my mother used to put it when I questioned the precision of her god-like judgement: ‘stop complaining, life’s not fair’. It is a very difficult thing to create a character you love and then not come running when he cries for help. Most filmmakers that mistreat their protagonists usually create dislikeable or quite neutral ones in order to make having a cold relationship towards them that bit easier.
I don’t want to get too much into the politics of the film for fear of showing off my ignorance towards the more technical subtleties of contemporary Russian government but Leviathan is certainly a film that involves the mind as much as the heart. As a story about the worker versus the state, it engages in a clear and vocal debate on political corruption and social inequality- as punctuated by the characters literally using photos of Russian politicians for target practise. As well as it’s more ambitious themes about faith and god that I touched on earlier; the film also offers a less esoteric debate on the mechanism of organised religion within a non-secular political system.
Needless to say I fucking enjoyed it and so did my friend. Days later it went on to scoop up best film at the London Film Festival so I think that everyone else was on the same page. I bumped into John Hurt in the cue for the urinals after the film and didn’t have the courage to spark up some boys’ room chitchat but I hope that he liked it too.
I for one would also like to put it out there that due to the hilariously inordinate amount of vodka consumed in the film, for those of you who aren’t fans of straight-drama or Russian cinema, Leviathan would also make truly superb material for a drinking game.