Review: Leviathan

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Democracy and justice are so easily taken for granted in the first world. Basic rights are upheld, and citizens are without any worry that the state might seize them without the proper authority. What of those nations to whom democracy is a new concept? If a given country has known nothing but centralized, iron fisted rule for decades or centuries, that adaptation to a free society can be glacial. Democracy may have allegedly arrived in the blink of an eye, but the leaders behind it can be susceptible to corruption, perverting the new laws of the land. The elephant in the room here is Russia, whose morphing into a democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union was less of an embrace and more a resigned acceptance. For the last quarter century, Russia’s claims of legitimacy towards its people has been merely a thin veil of deceit. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan examines all of this on a microcosmic scale, and the result is a vivid and vital look at the state’s systematic destruction of the individual.

On the outskirts of a northern Russian coastal town, Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov) has built a comfortable existence for himself. Working as a car mechanic, he lives with his teenage son and second wife, who works in a food processing factory in town. Their fairly uneventful life has suddenly been disturbed, when a decree made by the mayor (Roman Madyanov) demands the seizure of their house. There is no real precedent set for this, nor has Nikolay broken any laws. He calls upon his old childhood friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovinchenkov), who has a strong reputation as a lawyer in Moscow. They bring the case to court, but they are barely even able to stake their position when the decision is upheld. However, they find a glimmer of hope when the oafish mayor suddenly shows up outside Nickolay’s home that very night. As he drunkenly boasts about his power over the land, the mayor unwittingly offers Nickolay and Dmitri a silver lining. They seek to file a complaint pertaining to the mayor’s obnoxious behavior, in hope that it might overturn the court’s ruling. However, matters become increasingly complicated when inner family conflicts come to light and the mayor develops his own counter strategy.

There’s very little doubting the power behind the narrative of Leviathan, which deservedly won the screenplay award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The scope of the film is clearly localized, but it speaks to the universal issues that have been plaguing the nation for over two decades. It also must be noted that the film is not entirely dour, as flashes of humor spark up to relieve harsher scenes. For example, one standout scene involves Nickolay and Dmitri going out to shoot with a neighbor, whose targets happen to be portraits of former Soviet premiers. While it’s clear who the true antagonists are from the outset, the key protagonists are not perfect either. Nikolay, for instance, is impulsive in his decision making, which leads to unexpected consequences in the later portions of the film. Aleksey Sebryakov is a terrific anchor throughout the film, playing to both Nikolay’s strengths and weaknesses to form a complete yet flawed human. His son is also deeply conflicted, often lashing at his stepmother. Roman Madyanov is suitably slimy as the mayor who often goes too far in proving his control of the land. What really elevates Leviathan is its examination as to why leaders like the mayor feel the need to impose their will on the people. To discuss it here in depth would spoil the film’s devastating trajectory, but suffice to say, it is not far removed from those monarchs of centuries past who believed their rule was of “divine right.”

Unlike so many legal and family melodramas told in the United States, in Leviathan there is no contrived saving grace. Partially inspired by the Book of Job, Nikolay is heavily burdened, but in this environment, there may not be an outlet for him. Rarely has bleakness been as gorgeously lensed, as the persistence of magic hour in the far north lends itself to such ephemeral lighting. This forbidding atmosphere is not day to day, but it surely plays to the national mood overall, where many others are beset by problems of similar proportions to those of Nikolay. This comes around to a personal note for me, in that I find myself looking at what my life might have been like had I grown up in Russia. I doubt things would play out in the same way for me as they do in Leviathan, but that suffocation of opportunity and individual freedom under a supposed “democracy” is what continues to haunt. How can these circumstances change, and thus Russia move toward genuine legitimacy? It is in the hands of the younger generation, those who have not lived under the former Soviet rule. It is a gargantuan task to institute reforms of lasting impact, but only then will there be verification of who the leviathan of Russia really is, the corrupt leaders or the people.

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~ by romancinema on November 15, 2014.

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