“Leviathan” was the strongest selection I saw at the Telluride Film Festival. This Russian film received the recent Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and is also an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev (“Elena”) co-wrote the screenplay which was honored at Cannes.
Striking images are combined with a gripping story of corruption engulfing a family. The Philip Glass score creates an ominous mood. Stark scenes of waves on the rocks and rotted ship hulls on the beach foreshadow the pervasive decay throughout a Russian coastal town. A future scene shows the large skeleton of a whale.
Kolia (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a mechanic is struggling to keep his home from being seized by Vadim (Roman Madyanov), a formidable local politician. Vadim wants the property for a new community center. Kolia lives with his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), his son from a previous marriage. Kolia’s army friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a Moscow lawyer arrives to help Kolia keep his property. Kolia considers Dmitri a “fixer”. Dmitri has dug up damage against Vadim that they hope will give them success in the courts.
Vadim remains a dangerous opponent. In this pessimistic view of contemporary Russia, control is dominated by an alliance of corrupt local politicians (with photos of President Putin), the courts, and church hierarchy. The local religious leader has regular meetings with Vadim. The church will get some of any new land grab. In a disturbing scene, the religious authority tells Vadim not to give him details of his plans as they are “not in Confession” where sins must be kept secret.
The influence of vodka is pervasive. In a scene of dark humor, hunters prepare to shoot framed images of historical Russian leaders.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev masterfully builds tension as Vadim’s threats increase while Kolia and Dmitriy continue to fight back. “How do you sleep at night?” is asked. The impressive actors show the emotional toll of the fight against Vadim.
After the film Zvyagintsev discussed his vision of “Leviathan” He said that “sadness and beauty” exist “side by side”. He later added that “Private histories play out” against the “majestically beautiful nature.”
An unusual aspect of “Leviathan”, particularly in showing at a film festival in Telluride, Colorado is that the incident that became the genesis of the film also occurred in Colorado, in 2004. Zvyagintsev said that he was in the US in 2008 with a short film and when he heard about Marvin John Heemeyer, the story “blew me away”
Heemeyer was a welder and automobile muffler repair shop owner in Granby, Colorado. To protest a a zoning dispute, he used a bulldozer to destroy the town hall and other buildings in Granby. Zvyagintsev considers Heemeyer a “lost hero” and transferred his story to Russian soil, changing details to fit the Russian setting.
He considers “Leviathan” as telling the “tragedy of the human predicament” with an appropriate “Russian ending.”
Zvyagintsev added that the official cut of “Leviathan” could not be viewed in North Korea, Iran, and also Russia because of the expletives in the soundtrack.
When asked about the continual presence of vodka in the film, he said that vodka is a “beverage completely transparent”. He quoted the Russian Minister of Culture as saying “People don’t drink like that in Russia.” Zvyagintsev said that vodka is an “absolute constant” in Russia, but that the French drink more.
Zvyagintsev said that the “power alliance” between religion and government in Russia has an insufficient correlation to the US. Political authorities gain support by relying on spiritual powers. Because of this union, Zvyagintsev says that the Church loses the authority to make moral judgment on the actions of the government. He added that “those ruled give up liberties” to build up their welfare, adding that they “cohabit with the devil.”
He described his film as showing the “antagonism between man and state” as well as the conflicts between “self and family.” He added that man is “consumed by his own leviathan.” A leviathan is defined as a sea monster, as well as something huge or very powerful.