Today’s topic: powerlessness in 2014’s Leviathan. Every once in a while, foreign cinema plays the role of a wake up call. It shakes the film industry to its core, reminding both the audience and the producers what movies should be about. When movies where born there was no place for Captain America, no understanding of the hot mess called The Avengers, no praise for mindless X-Men. Movies used to be about humanity, vulnerability and ambition. Stories were told to teach and inspire. And as this concept is unfortunately dying due to the supreme power of today’s blockbusters, every one in a while there is a sparkle of hope in the world of cinema. I recently found that sparkle in the Russian 2014 Oscar-nominated Leviathan. A story so compelling and striking in its theme and execution that it restores every bit of hope in cinema’s importance as a mentor and prophet in a world that desperately needs guidance.
Based directly on the Book of Job, Leviathan is set in rural coastal Russia, where snow and poverty are the bread and butter of its inhabitants, busy living off fishing and construction work. Kolya, the protagonist, has his land taken by the town’s evil mayor. As he tries to protect it, Kolya loses everything. Yes, it’s a downer of a movie. But oh, its beauty. We can smell the poverty, we can smell the rotten fish, and the equally rotten government. The town is buried in corruption and selfishness. Kolya wanting to fight for his beautiful home, calls his brother from Moscow, a well respected and even better connected lawyer who knows how to solve major cases. Not this time. You see, Leviathan isn’t a simple story that revolves around a plot. It’s an exploration of human weakness and the vulnerability when that weakness is crushed by a higher force. Kolya tries to overplay the forces that rule the town he lives in. He files a suit against the mayor, he loses. He files a suit claiming his land, he loses. He tries to stand up for his own rights, he loses. His son, Roma, can’t help but run off and join his hooligan friends, refusing to watch his father drink himself to death. Not even the incriminating files against the town’s mayor filed by Kolya’s brother can help. The big man behind the big desk has his ways of dealing with outbursts of insubordination; invite Kolya’s brother for a drive-around, force him into a black SUV take him to the foggy, cold countryside, tie his hands, give him a serious beating and threaten to shoot him. That’s the universal way, isn’t it?
Andrey Zvyagintsev crafts a painful portrait of the weak, masking Russia’s dictatorial truth with a biblical tale of loss and anger. Kolya, a skilled mechanic, a brave fisherman, a dominant man of the house is just a small insect on Russia’s map. On the world’s map. Zvyagintsev underlines this by shooting wide panoramic landscapes: see how insignificant your actions are? You’re just a poor old sob. You can’t afford a close-up. You’re nothing when compared to the big picture. The only help you can find is at the bottom of a bottle of Vodka. And indeed, that’s the only help Kolya is provided with. The love of his life vanishes, his son’s respect is gone, his brother’s determination to support him is shattered, his town’s connection broken off. What about God? Is God there? Is God capable of letting Kolya know that this is just a test? Zvyagintsev’s message is clear: in Russia God is everywhere, but he’s nowhere to be found. The church is there, the prayers are there, but where’s God’s mercy? God’s love? Innocent people are put behind bars. Innocent people are killed. Innocent people lose everything. The director places us always far from the action, making us look powerless and hopeless when the worst comes to life. When Kolya’s brother gets almost beaten to death we witness it from the backseat of a quiet SUV. When Kolya’s brother goes off to have an affair with Kolya’s wife, we’re left standing in the middle of nowhere with a limited view of what we can only imagine is happening. We witness as the priest in the final moments blesses the crowd of villagers, talking about the enormity of being unfaithful to God. God is merciful. God is there. But the priest can’t answer Kolya’s desperate drunk fueled question: “Where’s your fucking Lord when needed?”
The mayor is powerful, the mayor is supreme. The priest tells the mayor “All power comes from God. As long as it suits Him, fear not.” And so the mayor does not fear, he acts, and his actions are the only powerful actions taking place in this miserable coastal town. His actions are the actions of a nation gone bad, of a world gone rogue.