Leviathan

20/04/2022

Mythologising the Contemporary

In an excellent essay on the legal spat between two London-based billionaires, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, Masha Gessen notes that the case was not a little confusing for the English judge, Elizabeth Gloster. “In our own national experience”, Abramovich’s lawyer told her, “we have to go back to the 15th-century to find anything remotely comparable”. Berezovsky was suing Abramovich for over $5billion since Berezovsky helped his friend have access to power that led to the latter’s fortune. It was a complicated case that Berezovsky lost but central to the losing of it was that Berezovsky wished English law to sort out a Russian legal injustice. The problem was that during the 1990s and early 2000s, Russia was in such a state of lawlessness it was hard for the English legal system to offer justice in the context of it. “No document shows that either Berezovsky or [Badri] Patarkatsishvili owned any part of Sibneft. Abramovich says that this is because they did not in fact own any part, while Berezovsky says that this is because, given how deep his own involvement in politics was, an off-the-books arrangement was necessary.” Gessen adds, Abramovich made annual payments to Berezovsky and his partner, but this clarifies nothing: Berezovsky claims that these were dividends, while Abramovich objects that [oil company] Sibneft never showed a profit in the 1990s, so there would have been no basis for dividends.” (Vanity Fair)

What does this have to do with Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan? Perhaps no more than that the case wonderfully gives credence to the sort of deterministic despair to be found in Zvyagnitsev’s film, a work that can seem too conveniently miserable as it moves from a man, Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) having his home repossessed, to losing his liberty when jailed for fifteen years for the death of his wife. After hearing about the sentence, the mayor says it serves Kolya right: “that’ll teach him to know his place.” It seems Kolya knew his place and it was the one he was living in, but Leviathan explores a Russia that is both modern in that money dictates values, and medieval in that laws are there to be utilised by the whims of the powerful. Kolya is stupid enough to believe that he has the law on his side, and his lawyer would seem to be no less stupid in thinking that he can win a case against the mayor based on legal reason. As Zvyagintsev says, “We live in a feudal system when everything is in the hands of one person, and everyone else is in a vertical of subordination.” (Guardian) The lawyer is an old army friend who lives in Moscow, and is in (the fictional) Pribrezhny to help Kolya at least get a proper payout for the house. Yet when they appear for a court hearing the inexorable injustice is reflected in a slow zoom in on the judge as she rattles off a statement that negates Kolya’s claims. It doesn’t matter if the property has been undervalued and that Kolya wasn’t given twelve months' notice over the property’s repossession. What matters is that the judge conforms to the mayor’s demands, evident in a later scene when he harangues the judge and a couple of others saying that if he doesn’t get elected again they all go down. 

Leviathan was filmed far from Moscow on the Barents sea, in Teriberka, but the film proposes that while this is small-town corruption it reflects broader misconduct elsewhere. There seems little doubt that the director wants the chicanery he shows in this town to be nationally pertinent. The mayor has a prominent photo of Putin on his wall and we might believe that he can act with impunity based on a general political climate. When he says to the judge and a couple of others that they are going down, he doesn’t couch it in the corruption that will be exposed but in the material pleasures that will thus have to be foregone: no holidays abroad, no mansions, no cash. Others will replace them and may be as dishonestly avaricious as they have been; the point is that they will no longer be the ones with ready access to wealth. We might struggle to believe in such a context the initial rational idealism of Kolya’s lawyer friend, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), but the film shows that his ideals are troublesome quickly enough. After the failure at the hearing, he later hands the mayor a dossier full of the mayor’s misdeeds and says if he doesn’t receive 3.5m rubles (fives time what was initially on offer), he will expose him. Dima also sleeps with Kolya’s wife, (Elena Lyadova), not a great surprise when Kolya shows himself a drunk, a fool and abusive to his son, but didn’t he ask Kolya a day or two before that it was important (at least concerning the case) that Kolya trust him? 

The idea seems to be that nobody can trust anybody else and that the affair is just part of a wider despair where people make the most of the opportunities available. Has Elena married Kolya out of convenience rather than love, a better-than-nothing scenario that perhaps the son can feel, since he has no affiliation with this young stepmother? The idea of disappearing to Moscow with the better-looking Dima must be very appealing, but while this could have been presented from a different perspective (narratively and morally) as a noirish love triangle, it becomes no more than another dashed opportunity: Dima returns to Moscow after first a modest beating by Kolya and his friends after Kolya finds out about the affair, and then after a severe beating and mock execution from the mayor and his flunkies. A noir story often indicates how characters are morally troublesome; Zvyagintsev wants to tell us this goes far beyond individual scruple. There are some who are terrible individuals including the mayor and they tend to do very well indeed, and then there are the inevitably flawed when a society doesn’t reward well the decent. To varying degrees Kolya, Lilya and even Dima are such characters, people we might think could get by a bit better if the social expectations could be more beneficial to honesty. 

In one scene, Lilya visits her fish factory co-worker friend, Anzhela, who tells her about an apartment nearby. They take a look and we see a hovel in need of complete renovation. The scene comes in the middle of the sequence where Dima has been blackmailing the Mayor, and not long before Lilya offers to sleep with Dima. Instead of seeing a blackmailing friend and an adulterous wife, the director manages to convey to the viewer a feeling that morality is hopelessly inadequate to the lives people are leading; that Dima isn’t bribing the mayor to get one over someone else but to avoid being completely under someone else. Lilya sleeping with Dima isn’t the start of a hot and exciting relationship but more the end of something: of a marriage with an unrealistic hothead whose pride is absurd given the nature of the Russia Zvyagintsev presents. When Lilya goes to Dima’s room after he suggests she wait downstairs, in the hotel restaurant, after they have been chatting about the case, she comes into the room as though a child with nowhere else to go. She doesn’t look like a woman who seeks an affair but one who wishes to escape a loveless situation, no matter Kolya’s proclamations of love. It would be loveless (of course the title of Zvyagintsev’s 2017 film) because she hardly exists in this marriage that as a family preceded her. The son is not hers, and the boy’s mother, who died when Romka was young, was at school with Anzhela. Anzhela, the mother and Kolya were all at school together and Lilya was a bit younger. Lilya we might assume is a woman many find beautiful but that beauty hasn’t done her much good in this small town where everyone knows each other. During the discussion with the Mayor, Dima may claim that “Moscow is a huge but close-knit city”, yet next to this fictional town it is rather more huge than close-knit. 

Lilya is thus a woman who wants to escape, whatever form that might take, and so she does, in what would appear to be a suicide, might be a homicide and is framed as an uxoricide. Her death is one of the moments in the film where the director adopts offscreen ellipsis. It has already been utilised in the eschewed sex scene with Dimas: she enters the room, the film cuts away to Kolya elsewhere, and cuts back to the room where Dima is lying in bed, the sheets in disarray, and Lilya returning from what we can suppose is the bathroom. The film does it again in a twofold manner when Lilya, Dima, Kolya and others are out by the sea having a picnic. The kids are off playing by the rocks and Dima and Lilya have wandered off to find driftwood. One of the children comes back saying they have seen Dima choking Lilya and Kolya goes after them, well aware that it isn’t a choking that has taken place. He obviously gives Dima a beating (and Lilya too), as we then see Dima and Lilya driving back, Dima’s face cut and bruised and Lilya’s swollen. In all three examples of ellipsis, Zvyagintsev doesn’t leave us in any doubt that sex in two instances and a beating in the third have taken place. But we don’t quite have the same confidence that Lilya’s death is a suicide, even if everything preceding it makes it readable this way. Her stepson has rejected her, her husband has coerced her into sex, and we have seen her crying in front of the mirror before she goes to look out to the sea as if she is about to throw herself into the water. We also see in the distance a whale that invokes the title, and might seem to be yearning her to join it. Yet later, when Kolya is arrested for her murder, the police insist that she has been killed with a blow from Kolya’s hammer. If she had died by throwing herself into the sea she would almost certainly have dashed herself against the rocks. If she has been killed by Kolya’s hammer there is nothing that we are shown to suggest he would have been responsible for the deed. Perhaps Zvyagintsev is making it easy on himself by using the ambiguity to allow for another elision: the court case where we witness only the conclusion — Kolya behind bars as he is sentenced to fifteen years in a maximum security facility. But while the other examples of what happened are unequivocal even if they are omitted, the director creates some ambiguity in Lilya’s death. It doesn’t finally matter whether she took her life or was murdered by the mayor’s men: the idea is that the environment is so despairing that whether one kills oneself or is murdered by corrupt officials, life isn’t really worth living anyway. 

One may find that this gives to the film (and the director’s films generally) an overdetermined quality, that character and situation, no matter the ellipses he utilises and the ambiguity that he generates, are contained by a deterministic certitude that leaves the moral through-line too clean, too direct. What we have here is a middle-aged mechanic trying to get by whose home is repossessed and ends up being replaced by a church. Russia has become so unscrupulous that even religion is reliant on the most dubious of cash, and while that may be no surprise to anyone who looks at religion through the ages and how many places of worship are bedecked in gold, there is nevertheless a horrible irony in a poor man’s home being destroyed so that the wealthy can pray in luxury. There is even more irony if one of the men we see praying at the end of the film is none other than the mayor, and more irony still when the priest we recognise from earlier in the film, from a single take scene with the priest insisting God is mighty but with the emphasis on might rather than on God, is doing the preaching The priest in the earlier scene tells the mayor he must be strong but the subtext is that he must be strong using force rather than in his belief in God. Churches won’t be built on faith alone, but a bit of bullying and corruption can work wonders as the priest will indeed get an expensive new building just where Kolya’s house used to be. If God moves in mysterious ways, it seems that those working for him move in unscrupulous ways to do his bidding. 

One needs to be wary of seeing this as the director’s attack on religion per se. “Zvyagintsev describes himself as secular, but a believer. When he was 28, he says, he decided he wanted to be christened, only to find out that his grandparents had done this secretly when he was two years old.” (Guardian) Importantly too, Leviathan is a film that shows two men of the cloth, the other the modest parish priest who speaks to Kolya after our central character has just been in the local shop buying a couple of bottles of vodka. Kolya rails against him and the priest does indeed say that God moves in mysterious ways, but also says when Kolya asks him “where’s your merciful God almighty?”, the priest replies: “mine is with me. As for yours, I wouldn’t know.” The priest then speaks from the Book of Job: “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down its tongue with a rope, a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words?” Job is one of the great sufferers of literature, a good man, who in a wager between God and the devil is handed over to the devil’s whims on the condition that the devil spare Job his life. A formerly happy and fortunate man, Job loses his livestock, then his servants, and even his sons and daughters when a great storm destroys the house and it falls upon them. Then Job comes down with “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” Job doesn’t know why such misery befalls him but he refuses to curse God, and in time he becomes prosperous and healthy again, producing many more sons and daughters. He trusts in the Lord in good times and bad, and the moral behind the story is that we cannot understand God’s plan but must have the humility to accept this. 

By invoking the story of Job, Kolya thinks the priest is talking in riddles while Kolya is speaking to him in simple terms, and yet after quoting Job the priest offers a version of the story where Job is a troublemaker: his wife tells him to stop invoking God’s wrath but Job insists on “kicking up dust and sprinkling ash on his head.” Is the priest saying one must accept God’s ways and not fight them, or is he also saying Kolya shouldn’t be fighting with the local authorities either? Are the priest’s comments the words of the weak or the wise; is he someone who reckons that Russia has a powerful government that one should yield to or that one must have a bigger and deeper perspective than the present predicament and stay internally strong? He insists that his God is with him but it doesn’t look like Kolya’s God has been around for quite some time. When Kolya speaks to the priest he has been glugging from a bottle of vodka, and has throughout the film been drinking too much as well as hitting his wife, his son, and his best friend. he has also been threatening others with violence, and taken unkindly to his lawyer friend speaking to him with firmness when many years earlier, when they were in the army together, Dima was his junior. Maybe some will say it is understandable if not forgivable that he has beaten his friend for sleeping with his wife, and even less forgivably, but not incomprehensibly so, that he has beaten his wife too. But one sees a man who isn’t in control of his temper and incapable of understanding the intricacies of his situation, and we may believe that while, like Job, throughout the film he will lose everything that belongs to him, he is not quite an innocent. 

Indeed, if he were, the director probably wouldn’t have been very interested in the story: that to utilise ancient myth is only as good as the contemporaneousness it serves, so that it can possess a depth of storytelling allied to an urgency that makes these myths pertinent to our age. Zvyagintsev was first interested in making a film about Marvin Heemeyer, a US citizen who bulldozed thirteen buildings in Colorado after various disputes with the local council. The director changed his mind but an aspect of the story remained. While the Heemeyer case appears very different from Kolya’s, with one indicating an American libertarian desire to take on big government and the other a Russian acceptance of suffering, they are both ostensibly about the little man up against broader concerns. Yet finally what seems to interest Zvyagintsev, in most of his films, is the burden of responsibility the individual carries in trying circumstances. Whether these are a result of corruption from the outside or moral failings from within (and often the films at their best combine both), Zvyagintsev’s work wants to understand a post-Russia that is quite distinct from the films that came out shortly after Communism’s collapse; works that often showed people’s subsistence living while fighting off madness, alcoholism, and other forms of addiction. Films like Hands and The Asthenic Syndrome captured well this enveloping despair, and Gessen’s article, ‘The Dying Russians’, from 2014, addressed the problem. Talking of her return to Russia in 1993, Gessen says, “the deaths kept piling up. People—men and women—were falling, or perhaps jumping, off trains and out of windows; asphyxiating in country houses with faulty wood stoves or in apartments with jammed front-door locks; getting hit by cars that sped through quiet courtyards or plowed down groups of people on a sidewalk; drowning as a result of diving drunk into a lake or ignoring sea-storm warnings or for no apparent reason; poisoning themselves with too much alcohol, counterfeit alcohol, alcohol substitutes, or drugs; and, finally, dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes.” (New York Review of Books

Leviathan, released the same year as Gessen’s article, shows us characters who are similarly dispirited, and, in Kolya, propped up by the spirit of vodka in the absence of the spirit of God. The general malaise Gessen describes may no longer be so prominent, but it is still very much evident. “Alexei Naval ́nyi, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, started the online media project leviathan.fbk.info, which collects ordinary Russians’ experiences that are reminiscent of the movie.” (Slavic Review) Kolya might well be far from a decent human being but he is still perhaps far from an atypical example of someone getting crushed by the Russian State. What complicates the film and makes it much more than anti-Putin propaganda (even if that might have been how the state viewed it, especially if the opposition got so behind the film), is how God’s absence works its way through the material. If Kolya isn’t much of a Job because he isn’t much of an innocent, then maybe Job isn’t much of an example if God is absent. When critics compare the director to Tarkovsky it isn’t only because both are very precise in their compositions, it is that the question of God insistently presents itself. “Any Russian director should expect to be compared with Tarkovsky, not least one who works, as Andrey Zvyagintsev does, with abundant natural imagery – desolate trees, expanses of icy water… Zvyagintsev tends to harness his philosophical points to commentary about modern Russia – and the world in general – and it should not be interpreted as a slight on either film-maker that the description of him as 'Tarkovsky with a plot' has now entered circulation.” (New Statesman) There wouldn’t really be any reason to compare Alexei German, Ilya Khrzhanovsky or Sergei Bodrov to Tarkovsky, but Zvyagintsev insists on imposing on his often socially astute narratives, in films like LeviathanElena and Loveless, a moral dimension that is more than people struggling with ethical dilemmas: they are struggling too with an absence that makes these conundrums greater than their agency. 

It is here that Zvyagintsev’s relationship with the image is of importance. It wouldn’t be enough to invoke the biblical if there wasn’t also a sense of magnitude that found a visual correlative for the dwarfing of the characters. At the beginning of the film, there are some fourteen shots but only one of them would pass for the necessary: the last, which offers a rear-view establishing shot of the house that will become central to the film. The rest are images of the sea, the rocks and bits of boats, long since abandoned. Some might say Zvyagintsev is setting the scene, showing us a harsh and difficult landscape, but isn’t there a hint of the unforgiving in the director’s images, a cinematic version of the pathetic fallacy that proposes these aren’t merely landscape images leading us into the drama; they are images transcending the drama? They show us a world rather than a town, a spiritual universe rather than just a geography. Each image is a fixed frame like a fixed stare: a hard look that one might take to be a God’s eye view of things but could be closer to a Godless one, as if an absence behind that gaze. At the end of the film, Zvyagintsev offers fourteen shots in reverse, and in the depths of a snowy winter. We start on the church that has replaced the house, and then have various images from the rocks and the sea. The impression is of a story told within a world far greater than the narrative we have been offered, with Kolya a flawed character certainly but whose flaws seem almost irrelevant next to the Russian State, and irrelevant again when seen in the context of the universe at large — a universe where there might be a benevolent figure looking over us in despair at human weakness, a malevolent one amused by our failings, or nothing at all, just a void with no interest in anything but its vastness. Job may have to accept that God works in mysterious ways, and is rewarded for his capacity to believe despite the misery that befalls him. But Kolya cannot it seems find such solace and the film proposes that there is no reason why he should when organised religion has been responsible for taking his home.

In the film’s opening and closing scenes, we might also note that Philip Glass’s music is heard during the credits and stops after the first ten shots. At the end of the film, it comes in again after ten shots and continues over the end credits. It gives to the music the same formal insistence we find in the images, but to what end? We might think it wishes to contain its story rather than merely to tell it, and while this makes Zvyagintsev a portentous filmmaker, it also gives his work a metaphysic that shouldn’t be ignored. Philip Glass also of course scored The Thin Blue Line, another story of a man caught in the injustices of a legal system that led to his imprisonment. Errol Morris’s film helped get the victim released, and Glass’s score is both insistent and yearning, conveying the horror of unfair incarceration but also the lightness of possible release in its literal form. Glass’s score for Leviathan is insistent but without the lightness: the music at the beginning and the end (and only used occasionally in between and without strong emphasis) indicates no such levity. If it proposes life isn’t probably great at the beginning then by the end it will be no better. It will indeed have become worse, as though the images we see at the conclusion suggest a yet further darkening that the opening shots showed. 

Zvyagintsev’s desire to view things in more than realistic terms can be observed anecdotally as well. Speaking to Filmmaker Magazine, he said: “we found Teriberka, located between Kazakhstan and Siberia. We found photos of the empty spaces we needed. We drove there and saw the Barents Sea, the crashing waves and the skeletons in this dying settlement.” But he also needed a small, bureaucratic town: “Kirovsk was used for the city exteriors and interiors, more importantly the exteriors — the government buildings, the court building. Kirovsk was enticing because it’s surrounded by a lot of mountains. In the middle of this landscape has been inscribed a typical, standard Soviet town, with all its normal two-story buildings. When you see a building and these mountains behind it, it makes a strong impression. So Teriberka and Kirovsk were chosen primarily for aesthetic reasons…” (Filmmaker Magazine) The distance between Teriberka and Kirovsk is over 300 km. There were other locations as well, including the mayor’s office in Monchegorsk as Zvyagintsev produces a film that wishes to create a locational specificity within a thematic landscape. The community needs to feel like a small one but the places have to reflect both a windswept isolated people and a small-minded bureaucratic one as well. Hence these two main locations that had to be in the viewer’s mind much closer together than they are. When Lilya looks at the flat near Anzhela’s we assume that it isn’t too far from Kolya’s house which is being demolished: that the problem rests on it being rundown rather than far away. The actual distance would also of course make a mockery of the closeness of the various characters in the film: whether it is Anzhela and her police officer husband as best friends, or the mayor turning up drunk one night at Kolya’s house. These details rest on the geographical assumption that everywhere is close to hand.  

The point isn’t to question the verisimilitude but to wonder what the director seeks in travelling several hundred kilometres between locations whilst giving the impression that there is hardly any distance at all. It is surely to draw together the individualistically isolated with the brutally bureaucratic, to show that for all Kolya’s rugged determination to be left alone, the state even in what might seem the smallest of towns has tentacular reach. This is all the more terrible if we believe the town is very nearby and not hundreds of kilometres away. For the story’s purpose, it needs both locations equally even if they couldn’t easily be found in close conjunction. Such a distortion of the geographical could give its numerous critics useful ammo — that the director was criticising a Russia that in the strict sense didn’t exist. In a solid piece partly about the film’s reception, Susanne Wengle, Christy Monet and Evgenia Olimpieva mention some of those very critical of the film, including Vsevolod Chaplin and Sergey Markov, a well-known ultra-conservative priest, and a social scientist close to Putin. Markov reckoned “Pussy Riot's act inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is not the stupidity of young girls, but part of the global conspiracy against Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church…” (Guardian), so the brief footage of Pussy Riot graffiti we see on a television in Leviathan wasn’t likely to allow Markov to praise the film. Chaplin (now dead) was known for his extreme conservatism, publishing amongst other things a short essay that in many ways would agree with Gessen's perspective on Russia in the 90s but demanding very different solutions: in a short address, ‘Post Soviet Countries: The Need for New Morals in Economy’, he talked in 2006 about a social and political economy closely modelled on the ten commandments. (Ecumenical Review

For figures like Markov and Chaplin, a strong Russia needs a heroic leader and finds it in Putin. Olimpieve etc. see the film working in the opposite direction and they draw on what Hayden White calls emplotted history, where events are given almost generic form: “romance, satire, tragedy, and comedy.” Putin’s Russia is a romance; Zvyagintsev’s a tragedy. “Typical of a tragedy, however, these questions remain unreconciled in the film. There are no clear answers. Yet, the film’s unresolved questions catalyzed social debate, and it is this catalytic capacity of tragedy that runs directly counter to Putin’s romantic myth: one of the central aims of the romantic and conservative narrative is to ease ‘the condition of epistemological uncertainty.’” (Slavic Review) The social exploration catalyses debate, with the film determining to generate a story of despair due to civic corruption. But it also muses over the broader question of the soul. “This is something irrational," Zvyagintsev says. "This something like the revelation or movement of the soul that can’t be articulated instantly. This is a kind of reaction to your observation of life.” (DVD Extras) If the scenes using locations far away from each other that must look like they are close by show a director interested in the socially immediate, the shots at the beginning and the end of Leviathan could be excised without apparently impacting much on the film, but only if we insist on emphasising the social drama and not the metaphysical residue the film insists upon. If Zvyagintsev makes much of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan when speaking about the social aspect of Hobbes’ theory, he also insists on its source: “For Hobbes, the Leviathan is the State. Hobbes proceeds from the notion that the Leviathan, in ancient mythology, is a terrifying, massive, enormous, horrific creature that lives in the depths of the ocean. And it threatens humankind as Chaos, as a horrifying force, often represented by Satan himself.” (Cineaction) It can be societal order and it can be chaos, with the needs of the former there to escape the dangers of the latter, but for Zvyagintsev that state perhaps is only as good as the individual souls who either make up the social structure or who govern it. 

It wouldn’t at all be fair to claim that Russian society is failing due to the weakness of its individuals, but it wouldn’t quite be true to say that the corruption of the Russian leadership has led to the misery either. If one comes away from the film seeing the tragic rather than the romantic, in seeing a narrative that shows no optimism in its telling and quite contrary to how Putin might wish to see Russia presented, then the failure of heroism is twofold. It rests not just on a state corrupted but also individuals incapable of acting well. One needn’t see these as equivalent failings but one can view them as horribly intertwined. If Dima is unlikely to win his case it isn’t helped along by sleeping with his client and friend’s wife. While he will receive a beating from the mayor, it comes shortly after receiving from one Kolya, and while the former is offscreen we might wonder how much less horrifying it was than the latter. When the mayor pulls out a gun and threatens to kill Dima a bullet is fired, just not at Dima’s head as the mayor shoots at the ground, while, earlier in the offscreen beating, we are witnessing events from Anzhela’s perspective. and she jumps as she hears in the distance machine gunfire. The only one with a weapon is Anzhela’s husband’s fellow cop, and it is unlikely he would have been threatening Dima with it but probably trying to stop Kolya from doing further damage to the lawyer. Nevertheless, hearing a machine gun going off in the midst of a beating and shortly afterwards hearing a single pistol shot isn’t going to leave the nerves in very good shape at all. Who is Dima now defending anyway; a friend who has been turned into an enemy by Dima’s deed? And doesn’t Dima have a family in Moscow as well — the mayor talks about the lawyer’s daughter when asking if Dima has any last words before the mock execution. When we see him on a train heading back to Moscow, we see a man who initially looked strong and composed, now troubled and in disarray. 

The director gives us characters in a weak state in a weak State, or strong State according to point of view. That is vital to the ambiguity of Putin’s Russia for many. How has it been emplotted, and who gets to define whether the story it tells about itself is a romantic or a tragic one? ‘Why on Earth Do Russians Vote For Putin?” goes the title of an article in the Norwegian newspaper High North News, with the paper interviewing Bernard Mohr who wrote a book about the Russian responses to such a question. Mohr reckons: “the support for Putin is about Russia’s immediate history, about a country that lost nearly everything during the democratization process in the 1990s, when people lost their jobs overnight and the country went through an extensive economic crisis — I can understand that people vote for Putin with security and stability in mind.” While many in the West reckon that Russia is a state oppressing its people, there will be plenty in Russia who see Putin’s presence as heroic rather than tragic, and if Zvyagintsev isn’t one of them, he views the failure as both individual and political. “Human nature changes a lot of things that seem ideal. I’m now talking about Thomas Hobbes’ idea of the leviathan, People’s lives and social guarantees and the rights of laws would protect everybody in an ideal world, but not in reality. (Filmmaker Magazine)

It would be too easy to say that Leviathan is a devastating critique on Putin’s Russia even if it is unequivocally taking place during the autocrat’s time: evident of course in the image of Putin on the mayor’s wall. We are in no doubt who is president of the country. But the suggestion that all would be well were Putin removed underestimates the enormous complications in a country that not only has 149.9 million people (greater a population than any other country in Europe) but also a greater landmass than any other country in the world. It is 70 times bigger than the UK and has eleven time zones. Even such enormous countries as the US and Canada have six, and China, the country that in many ways most resembles Russia, has just one. If one senses the vastness of the corruption in Leviathan, then we shouldn’t underestimate the word vastness in that claim. What one comes away with from Leviathan isn’t just an allusively harsh critique of the president but even more a sense of despair at how such a massive country is held in place by the political and the religious while undermining the possibility of the spiritual. By the end, Kolya, Lilya and Dima are in different ways broken; in prison, dead or in retreat. The film concludes not on their lives but on the State’s control of everybody’s in juridical and theological form. In a scene shortly before the end, the judge rattles off the verdict of the court and Kolya goes to jail for fifteen years. Shortly after, the priest who earlier conversed with the Mayor, talks deliberately and solemnly: “Freedom is finding God’s truth” he says. “The bible teaches us this. Know God’s truth and it will set you free.” When he says “true values are being replaced by false ones”, the film cuts to the Mayor, half-nodding — though some might take it as a tic, a sign that his nervous system cannot keep up the pretence the rest of his body demands. It is perhaps finally where the truth resides, in being at peace with oneself and where the nerves are not on edge. In that moment we might be reminded of the earlier one where Anzhela is startled by the machine-gun fire when the others go after Dima and Lilya (and how long it would have taken for her nerves to settle), and the amount of Vodka Kolya swallows trying to calm his exhausted state after Lilya’s disappearance. 

But calm is a luxury few characters in Zvyagintsev’s film can afford, and one even very rich Russians outside the country couldn’t afford no matter their wealth either. The day before Berezovsky’s death, where he was found hanged, the oligarch, Ben Judah says, Berezovsky “met Ilya Zhegulev, a journalist with Russian Forbes magazine. Mr Zhegulev said “the comet” [Berezovsky] seemed nervous and at times lost for words.” (Financial Times) Gessen’s two articles, on the Berezovsky/Abramovich case, and on the dying Russians, tell us a great deal about Russia, and so too does Leviathan. And yet the film, like the country, still remains a mystery, contained by its opening and closing moments that don’t contribute to telling the story, but somehow manage to give the broadest of contexts in containing it.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Leviathan

Mythologising the Contemporary

In an excellent essay on the legal spat between two London-based billionaires, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, Masha Gessen notes that the case was not a little confusing for the English judge, Elizabeth Gloster. "In our own national experience", Abramovich's lawyer told her, "we have to go back to the 15th-century to find anything remotely comparable". Berezovsky was suing Abramovich for over $5billion since Berezovsky helped his friend have access to power that led to the latter's fortune. It was a complicated case that Berezovsky lost but central to the losing of it was that Berezovsky wished English law to sort out a Russian legal injustice. The problem was that during the 1990s and early 2000s, Russia was in such a state of lawlessness it was hard for the English legal system to offer justice in the context of it. "No document shows that either Berezovsky or [Badri] Patarkatsishvili owned any part of Sibneft. Abramovich says that this is because they did not in fact own any part, while Berezovsky says that this is because, given how deep his own involvement in politics was, an off-the-books arrangement was necessary." Gessen adds, Abramovich made annual payments to Berezovsky and his partner, but this clarifies nothing: Berezovsky claims that these were dividends, while Abramovich objects that [oil company] Sibneft never showed a profit in the 1990s, so there would have been no basis for dividends." (Vanity Fair)

What does this have to do with Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan? Perhaps no more than that the case wonderfully gives credence to the sort of deterministic despair to be found in Zvyagnitsev's film, a work that can seem too conveniently miserable as it moves from a man, Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) having his home repossessed, to losing his liberty when jailed for fifteen years for the death of his wife. After hearing about the sentence, the mayor says it serves Kolya right: "that'll teach him to know his place." It seems Kolya knew his place and it was the one he was living in, but Leviathan explores a Russia that is both modern in that money dictates values, and medieval in that laws are there to be utilised by the whims of the powerful. Kolya is stupid enough to believe that he has the law on his side, and his lawyer would seem to be no less stupid in thinking that he can win a case against the mayor based on legal reason. As Zvyagintsev says, "We live in a feudal system when everything is in the hands of one person, and everyone else is in a vertical of subordination." (Guardian) The lawyer is an old army friend who lives in Moscow, and is in (the fictional) Pribrezhny to help Kolya at least get a proper payout for the house. Yet when they appear for a court hearing the inexorable injustice is reflected in a slow zoom in on the judge as she rattles off a statement that negates Kolya's claims. It doesn't matter if the property has been undervalued and that Kolya wasn't given twelve months' notice over the property's repossession. What matters is that the judge conforms to the mayor's demands, evident in a later scene when he harangues the judge and a couple of others saying that if he doesn't get elected again they all go down.

Leviathan was filmed far from Moscow on the Barents sea, in Teriberka, but the film proposes that while this is small-town corruption it reflects broader misconduct elsewhere. There seems little doubt that the director wants the chicanery he shows in this town to be nationally pertinent. The mayor has a prominent photo of Putin on his wall and we might believe that he can act with impunity based on a general political climate. When he says to the judge and a couple of others that they are going down, he doesn't couch it in the corruption that will be exposed but in the material pleasures that will thus have to be foregone: no holidays abroad, no mansions, no cash. Others will replace them and may be as dishonestly avaricious as they have been; the point is that they will no longer be the ones with ready access to wealth. We might struggle to believe in such a context the initial rational idealism of Kolya's lawyer friend, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), but the film shows that his ideals are troublesome quickly enough. After the failure at the hearing, he later hands the mayor a dossier full of the mayor's misdeeds and says if he doesn't receive 3.5m rubles (fives time what was initially on offer), he will expose him. Dima also sleeps with Kolya's wife, (Elena Lyadova), not a great surprise when Kolya shows himself a drunk, a fool and abusive to his son, but didn't he ask Kolya a day or two before that it was important (at least concerning the case) that Kolya trust him?

The idea seems to be that nobody can trust anybody else and that the affair is just part of a wider despair where people make the most of the opportunities available. Has Elena married Kolya out of convenience rather than love, a better-than-nothing scenario that perhaps the son can feel, since he has no affiliation with this young stepmother? The idea of disappearing to Moscow with the better-looking Dima must be very appealing, but while this could have been presented from a different perspective (narratively and morally) as a noirish love triangle, it becomes no more than another dashed opportunity: Dima returns to Moscow after first a modest beating by Kolya and his friends after Kolya finds out about the affair, and then after a severe beating and mock execution from the mayor and his flunkies. A noir story often indicates how characters are morally troublesome; Zvyagintsev wants to tell us this goes far beyond individual scruple. There are some who are terrible individuals including the mayor and they tend to do very well indeed, and then there are the inevitably flawed when a society doesn't reward well the decent. To varying degrees Kolya, Lilya and even Dima are such characters, people we might think could get by a bit better if the social expectations could be more beneficial to honesty.

In one scene, Lilya visits her fish factory co-worker friend, Anzhela, who tells her about an apartment nearby. They take a look and we see a hovel in need of complete renovation. The scene comes in the middle of the sequence where Dima has been blackmailing the Mayor, and not long before Lilya offers to sleep with Dima. Instead of seeing a blackmailing friend and an adulterous wife, the director manages to convey to the viewer a feeling that morality is hopelessly inadequate to the lives people are leading; that Dima isn't bribing the mayor to get one over someone else but to avoid being completely under someone else. Lilya sleeping with Dima isn't the start of a hot and exciting relationship but more the end of something: of a marriage with an unrealistic hothead whose pride is absurd given the nature of the Russia Zvyagintsev presents. When Lilya goes to Dima's room after he suggests she wait downstairs, in the hotel restaurant, after they have been chatting about the case, she comes into the room as though a child with nowhere else to go. She doesn't look like a woman who seeks an affair but one who wishes to escape a loveless situation, no matter Kolya's proclamations of love. It would be loveless (of course the title of Zvyagintsev's 2017 film) because she hardly exists in this marriage that as a family preceded her. The son is not hers, and the boy's mother, who died when Romka was young, was at school with Anzhela. Anzhela, the mother and Kolya were all at school together and Lilya was a bit younger. Lilya we might assume is a woman many find beautiful but that beauty hasn't done her much good in this small town where everyone knows each other. During the discussion with the Mayor, Dima may claim that "Moscow is a huge but close-knit city", yet next to this fictional town it is rather more huge than close-knit.

Lilya is thus a woman who wants to escape, whatever form that might take, and so she does, in what would appear to be a suicide, might be a homicide and is framed as an uxoricide. Her death is one of the moments in the film where the director adopts offscreen ellipsis. It has already been utilised in the eschewed sex scene with Dimas: she enters the room, the film cuts away to Kolya elsewhere, and cuts back to the room where Dima is lying in bed, the sheets in disarray, and Lilya returning from what we can suppose is the bathroom. The film does it again in a twofold manner when Lilya, Dima, Kolya and others are out by the sea having a picnic. The kids are off playing by the rocks and Dima and Lilya have wandered off to find driftwood. One of the children comes back saying they have seen Dima choking Lilya and Kolya goes after them, well aware that it isn't a choking that has taken place. He obviously gives Dima a beating (and Lilya too), as we then see Dima and Lilya driving back, Dima's face cut and bruised and Lilya's swollen. In all three examples of ellipsis, Zvyagintsev doesn't leave us in any doubt that sex in two instances and a beating in the third have taken place. But we don't quite have the same confidence that Lilya's death is a suicide, even if everything preceding it makes it readable this way. Her stepson has rejected her, her husband has coerced her into sex, and we have seen her crying in front of the mirror before she goes to look out to the sea as if she is about to throw herself into the water. We also see in the distance a whale that invokes the title, and might seem to be yearning her to join it. Yet later, when Kolya is arrested for her murder, the police insist that she has been killed with a blow from Kolya's hammer. If she had died by throwing herself into the sea she would almost certainly have dashed herself against the rocks. If she has been killed by Kolya's hammer there is nothing that we are shown to suggest he would have been responsible for the deed. Perhaps Zvyagintsev is making it easy on himself by using the ambiguity to allow for another elision: the court case where we witness only the conclusion Kolya behind bars as he is sentenced to fifteen years in a maximum security facility. But while the other examples of what happened are unequivocal even if they are omitted, the director creates some ambiguity in Lilya's death. It doesn't finally matter whether she took her life or was murdered by the mayor's men: the idea is that the environment is so despairing that whether one kills oneself or is murdered by corrupt officials, life isn't really worth living anyway.

One may find that this gives to the film (and the director's films generally) an overdetermined quality, that character and situation, no matter the ellipses he utilises and the ambiguity that he generates, are contained by a deterministic certitude that leaves the moral through-line too clean, too direct. What we have here is a middle-aged mechanic trying to get by whose home is repossessed and ends up being replaced by a church. Russia has become so unscrupulous that even religion is reliant on the most dubious of cash, and while that may be no surprise to anyone who looks at religion through the ages and how many places of worship are bedecked in gold, there is nevertheless a horrible irony in a poor man's home being destroyed so that the wealthy can pray in luxury. There is even more irony if one of the men we see praying at the end of the film is none other than the mayor, and more irony still when the priest we recognise from earlier in the film, from a single take scene with the priest insisting God is mighty but with the emphasis on might rather than on God, is doing the preaching The priest in the earlier scene tells the mayor he must be strong but the subtext is that he must be strong using force rather than in his belief in God. Churches won't be built on faith alone, but a bit of bullying and corruption can work wonders as the priest will indeed get an expensive new building just where Kolya's house used to be. If God moves in mysterious ways, it seems that those working for him move in unscrupulous ways to do his bidding.

One needs to be wary of seeing this as the director's attack on religion per se. "Zvyagintsev describes himself as secular, but a believer. When he was 28, he says, he decided he wanted to be christened, only to find out that his grandparents had done this secretly when he was two years old." (Guardian) Importantly too, Leviathan is a film that shows two men of the cloth, the other the modest parish priest who speaks to Kolya after our central character has just been in the local shop buying a couple of bottles of vodka. Kolya rails against him and the priest does indeed say that God moves in mysterious ways, but also says when Kolya asks him "where's your merciful God almighty?", the priest replies: "mine is with me. As for yours, I wouldn't know." The priest then speaks from the Book of Job: "Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down its tongue with a rope, a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words?" Job is one of the great sufferers of literature, a good man, who in a wager between God and the devil is handed over to the devil's whims on the condition that the devil spare Job his life. A formerly happy and fortunate man, Job loses his livestock, then his servants, and even his sons and daughters when a great storm destroys the house and it falls upon them. Then Job comes down with "loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head." Job doesn't know why such misery befalls him but he refuses to curse God, and in time he becomes prosperous and healthy again, producing many more sons and daughters. He trusts in the Lord in good times and bad, and the moral behind the story is that we cannot understand God's plan but must have the humility to accept this.

By invoking the story of Job, Kolya thinks the priest is talking in riddles while Kolya is speaking to him in simple terms, and yet after quoting Job the priest offers a version of the story where Job is a troublemaker: his wife tells him to stop invoking God's wrath but Job insists on "kicking up dust and sprinkling ash on his head." Is the priest saying one must accept God's ways and not fight them, or is he also saying Kolya shouldn't be fighting with the local authorities either? Are the priest's comments the words of the weak or the wise; is he someone who reckons that Russia has a powerful government that one should yield to or that one must have a bigger and deeper perspective than the present predicament and stay internally strong? He insists that his God is with him but it doesn't look like Kolya's God has been around for quite some time. When Kolya speaks to the priest he has been glugging from a bottle of vodka, and has throughout the film been drinking too much as well as hitting his wife, his son, and his best friend. he has also been threatening others with violence, and taken unkindly to his lawyer friend speaking to him with firmness when many years earlier, when they were in the army together, Dima was his junior. Maybe some will say it is understandable if not forgivable that he has beaten his friend for sleeping with his wife, and even less forgivably, but not incomprehensibly so, that he has beaten his wife too. But one sees a man who isn't in control of his temper and incapable of understanding the intricacies of his situation, and we may believe that while, like Job, throughout the film he will lose everything that belongs to him, he is not quite an innocent.

Indeed, if he were, the director probably wouldn't have been very interested in the story: that to utilise ancient myth is only as good as the contemporaneousness it serves, so that it can possess a depth of storytelling allied to an urgency that makes these myths pertinent to our age. Zvyagintsev was first interested in making a film about Marvin Heemeyer, a US citizen who bulldozed thirteen buildings in Colorado after various disputes with the local council. The director changed his mind but an aspect of the story remained. While the Heemeyer case appears very different from Kolya's, with one indicating an American libertarian desire to take on big government and the other a Russian acceptance of suffering, they are both ostensibly about the little man up against broader concerns. Yet finally what seems to interest Zvyagintsev, in most of his films, is the burden of responsibility the individual carries in trying circumstances. Whether these are a result of corruption from the outside or moral failings from within (and often the films at their best combine both), Zvyagintsev's work wants to understand a post-Russia that is quite distinct from the films that came out shortly after Communism's collapse; works that often showed people's subsistence living while fighting off madness, alcoholism, and other forms of addiction. Films like Hands and The Asthenic Syndrome captured well this enveloping despair, and Gessen's article, 'The Dying Russians', from 2014, addressed the problem. Talking of her return to Russia in 1993, Gessen says, "the deaths kept piling up. Peoplemen and womenwere falling, or perhaps jumping, off trains and out of windows; asphyxiating in country houses with faulty wood stoves or in apartments with jammed front-door locks; getting hit by cars that sped through quiet courtyards or plowed down groups of people on a sidewalk; drowning as a result of diving drunk into a lake or ignoring sea-storm warnings or for no apparent reason; poisoning themselves with too much alcohol, counterfeit alcohol, alcohol substitutes, or drugs; and, finally, dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes." (New York Review of Books)

Leviathan, released the same year as Gessen's article, shows us characters who are similarly dispirited, and, in Kolya, propped up by the spirit of vodka in the absence of the spirit of God. The general malaise Gessen describes may no longer be so prominent, but it is still very much evident. "Alexei Naval ́nyi, Russia's most prominent opposition leader, started the online media project leviathan.fbk.info, which collects ordinary Russians' experiences that are reminiscent of the movie." (Slavic Review) Kolya might well be far from a decent human being but he is still perhaps far from an atypical example of someone getting crushed by the Russian State. What complicates the film and makes it much more than anti-Putin propaganda (even if that might have been how the state viewed it, especially if the opposition got so behind the film), is how God's absence works its way through the material. If Kolya isn't much of a Job because he isn't much of an innocent, then maybe Job isn't much of an example if God is absent. When critics compare the director to Tarkovsky it isn't only because both are very precise in their compositions, it is that the question of God insistently presents itself. "Any Russian director should expect to be compared with Tarkovsky, not least one who works, as Andrey Zvyagintsev does, with abundant natural imagery - desolate trees, expanses of icy water... Zvyagintsev tends to harness his philosophical points to commentary about modern Russia - and the world in general - and it should not be interpreted as a slight on either film-maker that the description of him as 'Tarkovsky with a plot' has now entered circulation." (New Statesman) There wouldn't really be any reason to compare Alexei German, Ilya Khrzhanovsky or Sergei Bodrov to Tarkovsky, but Zvyagintsev insists on imposing on his often socially astute narratives, in films like Leviathan, Elena and Loveless, a moral dimension that is more than people struggling with ethical dilemmas: they are struggling too with an absence that makes these conundrums greater than their agency.

It is here that Zvyagintsev's relationship with the image is of importance. It wouldn't be enough to invoke the biblical if there wasn't also a sense of magnitude that found a visual correlative for the dwarfing of the characters. At the beginning of the film, there are some fourteen shots but only one of them would pass for the necessary: the last, which offers a rear-view establishing shot of the house that will become central to the film. The rest are images of the sea, the rocks and bits of boats, long since abandoned. Some might say Zvyagintsev is setting the scene, showing us a harsh and difficult landscape, but isn't there a hint of the unforgiving in the director's images, a cinematic version of the pathetic fallacy that proposes these aren't merely landscape images leading us into the drama; they are images transcending the drama? They show us a world rather than a town, a spiritual universe rather than just a geography. Each image is a fixed frame like a fixed stare: a hard look that one might take to be a God's eye view of things but could be closer to a Godless one, as if an absence behind that gaze. At the end of the film, Zvyagintsev offers fourteen shots in reverse, and in the depths of a snowy winter. We start on the church that has replaced the house, and then have various images from the rocks and the sea. The impression is of a story told within a world far greater than the narrative we have been offered, with Kolya a flawed character certainly but whose flaws seem almost irrelevant next to the Russian State, and irrelevant again when seen in the context of the universe at large a universe where there might be a benevolent figure looking over us in despair at human weakness, a malevolent one amused by our failings, or nothing at all, just a void with no interest in anything but its vastness. Job may have to accept that God works in mysterious ways, and is rewarded for his capacity to believe despite the misery that befalls him. But Kolya cannot it seems find such solace and the film proposes that there is no reason why he should when organised religion has been responsible for taking his home.

In the film's opening and closing scenes, we might also note that Philip Glass's music is heard during the credits and stops after the first ten shots. At the end of the film, it comes in again after ten shots and continues over the end credits. It gives to the music the same formal insistence we find in the images, but to what end? We might think it wishes to contain its story rather than merely to tell it, and while this makes Zvyagintsev a portentous filmmaker, it also gives his work a metaphysic that shouldn't be ignored. Philip Glass also of course scored The Thin Blue Line, another story of a man caught in the injustices of a legal system that led to his imprisonment. Errol Morris's film helped get the victim released, and Glass's score is both insistent and yearning, conveying the horror of unfair incarceration but also the lightness of possible release in its literal form. Glass's score for Leviathan is insistent but without the lightness: the music at the beginning and the end (and only used occasionally in between and without strong emphasis) indicates no such levity. If it proposes life isn't probably great at the beginning then by the end it will be no better. It will indeed have become worse, as though the images we see at the conclusion suggest a yet further darkening that the opening shots showed.

Zvyagintsev's desire to view things in more than realistic terms can be observed anecdotally as well. Speaking to Filmmaker Magazine, he said: "we found Teriberka, located between Kazakhstan and Siberia. We found photos of the empty spaces we needed. We drove there and saw the Barents Sea, the crashing waves and the skeletons in this dying settlement." But he also needed a small, bureaucratic town: "Kirovsk was used for the city exteriors and interiors, more importantly the exteriors the government buildings, the court building. Kirovsk was enticing because it's surrounded by a lot of mountains. In the middle of this landscape has been inscribed a typical, standard Soviet town, with all its normal two-story buildings. When you see a building and these mountains behind it, it makes a strong impression. So Teriberka and Kirovsk were chosen primarily for aesthetic reasons..." (Filmmaker Magazine) The distance between Teriberka and Kirovsk is over 300 km. There were other locations as well, including the mayor's office in Monchegorsk as Zvyagintsev produces a film that wishes to create a locational specificity within a thematic landscape. The community needs to feel like a small one but the places have to reflect both a windswept isolated people and a small-minded bureaucratic one as well. Hence these two main locations that had to be in the viewer's mind much closer together than they are. When Lilya looks at the flat near Anzhela's we assume that it isn't too far from Kolya's house which is being demolished: that the problem rests on it being rundown rather than far away. The actual distance would also of course make a mockery of the closeness of the various characters in the film: whether it is Anzhela and her police officer husband as best friends, or the mayor turning up drunk one night at Kolya's house. These details rest on the geographical assumption that everywhere is close to hand.

The point isn't to question the verisimilitude but to wonder what the director seeks in travelling several hundred kilometres between locations whilst giving the impression that there is hardly any distance at all. It is surely to draw together the individualistically isolated with the brutally bureaucratic, to show that for all Kolya's rugged determination to be left alone, the state even in what might seem the smallest of towns has tentacular reach. This is all the more terrible if we believe the town is very nearby and not hundreds of kilometres away. For the story's purpose, it needs both locations equally even if they couldn't easily be found in close conjunction. Such a distortion of the geographical could give its numerous critics useful ammo that the director was criticising a Russia that in the strict sense didn't exist. In a solid piece partly about the film's reception, Susanne Wengle, Christy Monet and Evgenia Olimpieva mention some of those very critical of the film, including Vsevolod Chaplin and Sergey Markov, a well-known ultra-conservative priest, and a social scientist close to Putin. Markov reckoned "Pussy Riot's act inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is not the stupidity of young girls, but part of the global conspiracy against Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church..." (Guardian), so the brief footage of Pussy Riot graffiti we see on a television in Leviathan wasn't likely to allow Markov to praise the film. Chaplin (now dead) was known for his extreme conservatism, publishing amongst other things a short essay that in many ways would agree with Gessen's perspective on Russia in the 90s but demanding very different solutions: in a short address, 'Post Soviet Countries: The Need for New Morals in Economy', he talked in 2006 about a social and political economy closely modelled on the ten commandments. (Ecumenical Review)

For figures like Markov and Chaplin, a strong Russia needs a heroic leader and finds it in Putin. Olimpieve etc. see the film working in the opposite direction and they draw on what Hayden White calls emplotted history, where events are given almost generic form: "romance, satire, tragedy, and comedy." Putin's Russia is a romance; Zvyagintsev's a tragedy. "Typical of a tragedy, however, these questions remain unreconciled in the film. There are no clear answers. Yet, the film's unresolved questions catalyzed social debate, and it is this catalytic capacity of tragedy that runs directly counter to Putin's romantic myth: one of the central aims of the romantic and conservative narrative is to ease 'the condition of epistemological uncertainty.'" (Slavic Review) The social exploration catalyses debate, with the film determining to generate a story of despair due to civic corruption. But it also muses over the broader question of the soul. "This is something irrational, Zvyagintsev says. This something like the revelation or movement of the soul that can't be articulated instantly. This is a kind of reaction to your observation of life." (DVD Extras) If the scenes using locations far away from each other that must look like they are close by show a director interested in the socially immediate, the shots at the beginning and the end of Leviathan could be excised without apparently impacting much on the film, but only if we insist on emphasising the social drama and not the metaphysical residue the film insists upon. If Zvyagintsev makes much of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan when speaking about the social aspect of Hobbes' theory, he also insists on its source: "For Hobbes, the Leviathan is the State. Hobbes proceeds from the notion that the Leviathan, in ancient mythology, is a terrifying, massive, enormous, horrific creature that lives in the depths of the ocean. And it threatens humankind as Chaos, as a horrifying force, often represented by Satan himself." (Cineaction) It can be societal order and it can be chaos, with the needs of the former there to escape the dangers of the latter, but for Zvyagintsev that state perhaps is only as good as the individual souls who either make up the social structure or who govern it.

It wouldn't at all be fair to claim that Russian society is failing due to the weakness of its individuals, but it wouldn't quite be true to say that the corruption of the Russian leadership has led to the misery either. If one comes away from the film seeing the tragic rather than the romantic, in seeing a narrative that shows no optimism in its telling and quite contrary to how Putin might wish to see Russia presented, then the failure of heroism is twofold. It rests not just on a state corrupted but also individuals incapable of acting well. One needn't see these as equivalent failings but one can view them as horribly intertwined. If Dima is unlikely to win his case it isn't helped along by sleeping with his client and friend's wife. While he will receive a beating from the mayor, it comes shortly after receiving from one Kolya, and while the former is offscreen we might wonder how much less horrifying it was than the latter. When the mayor pulls out a gun and threatens to kill Dima a bullet is fired, just not at Dima's head as the mayor shoots at the ground, while, earlier in the offscreen beating, we are witnessing events from Anzhela's perspective. and she jumps as she hears in the distance machine gunfire. The only one with a weapon is Anzhela's husband's fellow cop, and it is unlikely he would have been threatening Dima with it but probably trying to stop Kolya from doing further damage to the lawyer. Nevertheless, hearing a machine gun going off in the midst of a beating and shortly afterwards hearing a single pistol shot isn't going to leave the nerves in very good shape at all. Who is Dima now defending anyway; a friend who has been turned into an enemy by Dima's deed? And doesn't Dima have a family in Moscow as well the mayor talks about the lawyer's daughter when asking if Dima has any last words before the mock execution. When we see him on a train heading back to Moscow, we see a man who initially looked strong and composed, now troubled and in disarray.

The director gives us characters in a weak state in a weak State, or strong State according to point of view. That is vital to the ambiguity of Putin's Russia for many. How has it been emplotted, and who gets to define whether the story it tells about itself is a romantic or a tragic one? 'Why on Earth Do Russians Vote For Putin?" goes the title of an article in the Norwegian newspaper High North News, with the paper interviewing Bernard Mohr who wrote a book about the Russian responses to such a question. Mohr reckons: "the support for Putin is about Russia's immediate history, about a country that lost nearly everything during the democratization process in the 1990s, when people lost their jobs overnight and the country went through an extensive economic crisis I can understand that people vote for Putin with security and stability in mind." While many in the West reckon that Russia is a state oppressing its people, there will be plenty in Russia who see Putin's presence as heroic rather than tragic, and if Zvyagintsev isn't one of them, he views the failure as both individual and political. "Human nature changes a lot of things that seem ideal. I'm now talking about Thomas Hobbes' idea of the leviathan, People's lives and social guarantees and the rights of laws would protect everybody in an ideal world, but not in reality. (Filmmaker Magazine)

It would be too easy to say that Leviathan is a devastating critique on Putin's Russia even if it is unequivocally taking place during the autocrat's time: evident of course in the image of Putin on the mayor's wall. We are in no doubt who is president of the country. But the suggestion that all would be well were Putin removed underestimates the enormous complications in a country that not only has 149.9 million people (greater a population than any other country in Europe) but also a greater landmass than any other country in the world. It is 70 times bigger than the UK and has eleven time zones. Even such enormous countries as the US and Canada have six, and China, the country that in many ways most resembles Russia, has just one. If one senses the vastness of the corruption in Leviathan, then we shouldn't underestimate the word vastness in that claim. What one comes away with from Leviathan isn't just an allusively harsh critique of the president but even more a sense of despair at how such a massive country is held in place by the political and the religious while undermining the possibility of the spiritual. By the end, Kolya, Lilya and Dima are in different ways broken; in prison, dead or in retreat. The film concludes not on their lives but on the State's control of everybody's in juridical and theological form. In a scene shortly before the end, the judge rattles off the verdict of the court and Kolya goes to jail for fifteen years. Shortly after, the priest who earlier conversed with the Mayor, talks deliberately and solemnly: "Freedom is finding God's truth" he says. "The bible teaches us this. Know God's truth and it will set you free." When he says "true values are being replaced by false ones", the film cuts to the Mayor, half-nodding though some might take it as a tic, a sign that his nervous system cannot keep up the pretence the rest of his body demands. It is perhaps finally where the truth resides, in being at peace with oneself and where the nerves are not on edge. In that moment we might be reminded of the earlier one where Anzhela is startled by the machine-gun fire when the others go after Dima and Lilya (and how long it would have taken for her nerves to settle), and the amount of Vodka Kolya swallows trying to calm his exhausted state after Lilya's disappearance.

But calm is a luxury few characters in Zvyagintsev's film can afford, and one even very rich Russians outside the country couldn't afford no matter their wealth either. The day before Berezovsky's death, where he was found hanged, the oligarch, Ben Judah says, Berezovsky "met Ilya Zhegulev, a journalist with Russian Forbes magazine. Mr Zhegulev said "the comet" [Berezovsky] seemed nervous and at times lost for words." (Financial Times) Gessen's two articles, on the Berezovsky/Abramovich case, and on the dying Russians, tell us a great deal about Russia, and so too does Leviathan. And yet the film, like the country, still remains a mystery, contained by its opening and closing moments that don't contribute to telling the story, but somehow manage to give the broadest of contexts in containing it.


© Tony McKibbin