Leviathan (2014)

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*. The title. It’s invoked by the priest when he brings up the Book of Job, but any reference to the Bible, as with any reference to religion in the movie, is fiercely ironic. Kolya suffers, but is no Job being tested by God.
*. I take it the main connection being made is to Hobbes, with the leviathan being the massive, and massively corrupt, Russian state. There’s an anecdote from the show trials of the 1930s that has a prosecutor, frustrated at being unable to attain a confession from one of the accused, going to meet Stalin. Stalin asks him “How much does the State weigh? All of the buildings, the farms, the weapons and equipment? All of the officials, police, soldiers, and prosecutors?” His point being that no man could resist being crushed by the weight of such a social and political apparatus: the modern leviathan.
*. I also take it that the whale skeleton on the beach (a prop apparently made of metal) is symbolic of the ruins of the Russian/Stalinist state: an awesome corpse of that great weight still having about it an air of threat.
*. This isn’t the only interpretation available. Peter Bradshaw sees Kolya as the beached whale: “with all the burdensome size but none of the power: massive, inert, waiting only for death to put his trial to an end.” I don’t see that, but as I say, it’s available.

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*. On the face of it, it’s a movie about life in modern Russia, or at least some of the bleaker parts of it. The unholy alliance of church and state is one of the most damning ever put on film. If that were all going on, it would have some documentary interest, but little more than that. What I found frightening was how close to home it hit. It was actually inspired by events in the United States, and as anyone who has ever had the misfortune of getting embroiled in municipal politics, or trying to fight city hall, knows, this is what the experience feels like. Money talks and the civic bureaucracy is corrupt, unjust, and incompetent. Things aren’t quite as bad where I live, but still I felt more a sense of recognition than shock. The main difference is that government workers here are better off, wear nicer clothes, and work in nicer offices.
*. I don’t speak Russian, and was surprised to find the expression “bro” used a couple of times and “dude” once in the subtitles. I wonder how accurate this was. Were the Russian words being translated relatively new slang? Western? Or will these subtitles seem ridiculous in another ten or twenty years?

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*. There are a couple of complaints I’ve heard made about this movie that I don’t think stick.
*. In the first place, it’s criticized as being too long and slow-moving. I don’t see this as a real problem. The two remorseless legal monologues, for example, are there for a reason and are effective. And while I thought there were a few short scenes I might have cut (the kids at the campfire, for example), the pacing worked for me and I never found myself bored.
*. A second criticism is that key events are not shown. In particular, Dmitriy’s having sex with Lilya and Lilya’s suicide. In fact, we can’t be sure in either case what exactly happens. Was Lilya raped? Was she killed? By not showing us what happened, Andrey Zvyagintsev creates an air of mystery that I think fits thematically with the rest of the film.

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*. As the mayor Vadim explains to his son during the closing church service, God sees everything. And there’s Jesus on the wall as Big Brother. So God only knows what was really going on between Lilya and Dmitriy, or whether she killed herself or was done in by Roma or the mayor’s goons. That sense of uncertainty feeds into the state of paranoia we’re in. What does God see? Presumably what we don’t. So does God see the truth and wait? Does he have all our misdeeds on file in a dossier being kept back in Moscow?
*. Or is God the camera eye? There’s a very disconcerting moment at the end, just before Vadim explains to his son that God sees everything. He turns from looking to the priest at the front of the church and looks directly at the camera. It’s a very odd, unnerving moment and I can’t explain it. You can feel the fourth wall torn aside like the side of Kolya’s farm house by the excavator, as Vadim seems to be looking, just for a moment, at us.

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*. In brief, where mystery and ambiguity are the point, as they are, say, in L’Avventura, I don’t think anything is lost by such elisions. And here they’re very much to the point.
*. Something I did find to be a flaw was all the drinking. Not because it’s unrealistic. My understanding is that alcoholism is a major problem in Russia and I can believe the local boys are tilting bottles back every chance they can get, drowning in epic quantities of vodka. And apparently the cast actually were getting drunk, as they were drinking for real in the film (which can start to add up over several takes).

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*. My problem with the drinking is that it dilutes my attitude toward the characters. Faced with the loss of Lilya, Kolya spends the final act of the movie in a stupor: not a man suffering but a man drunk. Meanwhile, I can appreciate silence as much as ambiguity, but there’s just not enough to get a hold of here to be compelling on a human level. Who is Dmitriy anyway? How does he feel about any of this? Does he feel, or is he pickled in spirits?
*. For such a human story as this there were only a couple of those quiet moments where I felt something was really going on inside these characters that might be interesting. These were when Kolya tells his friend that he can’t fix his vehicle that day and when Lidya wakes up and decides to go for her walk. For a movie this long, focused on a handful of lives, that’s not enough.
*. It’s beautifully photographed and has some great performances. My main complaint is that it’s underwritten, which, as a fan of nineteenth-century Russian fiction, feels like an odd thing to say. Compared to the people we meet in the pages of Chekov or Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, the characters seem like ghosts. Which, given Russia’s more recent history, is perhaps not that surprising.

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