Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Trials of Job

Film: Leviafan (Leviathan)
Format: DVD from netFlix on laptop.

There’s a feel to Russian movies that I don’t think can be duplicated by anything but a Russian director. Even a short Russian film feels like an epic, and all of them feel like stories about how terrible things happen to average people. That’s absolutely the case with Leviafan (Leviathan). It’s long, and nothing good happens to any of the main characters here. Any happiness is fleeting, comes before something terrible, and usually comes out of a bottle.

Don’t forget that; alcohol is a theme in Leviafan. Evidently, the actors actually drank in a number of the scenes and frequently the takes used were after multiple attempts at the scene, so they were actually inebriated. This is certainly why they seem to be exemplary at acting like drunks. They really look the part.

Leviafan is more or less a modern retelling of the biblical story of Job. A man named Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) lives in a small northern coastal town with his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), his son from his first marriage. Kolya is a car mechanic who seems to be taken advantage of by his friends when it comes to getting their cars repaired.

As the film starts, we’re already in the middle of the controversy that drives the entire film. Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the local mayor, has laid a claim to expropriate Kolya’s land for a communication tower and has arranged to drastically underpay for the actual value of the land. Kolya is convinced that Vadim actually wants the land to build a house for himself, and Kolya has fought the expropriation every step of the way. He’s enlisted his friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a former army buddy turned connected Moscow lawyer to help him.

What ensues is everything going wrong for Kolya. He loses his latest appeal, giving Vadim the right to the house. Dima has used his contacts to dig up dirt on Vadim to at least keep him temporarily off Kolya’s land and to get more money for his friend. Kolya’s temper gets him arrested, an event that leaves Lilya free to begin an affair with Dima, evidently to help her deal with the intense boredom of her own life. And from there, things spiral out of control with violence, death, recriminations, and massive amounts of drunkenness.

Leviafan is very carefully constructed. There is a reason that the two people most dedicated to putting Kolya in his place and stealing his land are involved in the government and the church, for instance. There is a palpable hypocrisy in the actions of Vadim and of the local church leaders who continue to urge Vadim to use what power he has to claim the land fo whatever reasons he wants. The ultimate reason for the land grab trns out to be so cynical that it’s difficult to believe.

This measured hypocrisy is one of the aspects of Leviafan that work throughout the film. Once we see the depths of the duplicity on offer here, the closing scene becomes something not of faith and idealism but of crass insincerity. If nothing else, Leviafan is an indictment of anyone who wields power in the life of another person, or at least those who do without ever considering the consequences on another human being.

For a film were every plont in the plot serves to destroy the life of its principle character, Leviafan allows the tory to play itself out. Clearly the hypocrisy is called out, but is it condemned? I don’t think so. Instead, its dealt with in a way that seems uniquely Russian. There is no character surprised much by how the events turned out. Kolya is set up from the beginning as a character who is little more than a cinematic railroad spike to be driven mercilessly into the ground. There’s no pity here. Instead, it is stark reality show to us clinically and without unnecessary melodrama or fanfare.

It’s also a beautiful film. The shot above with Roma sitting on a rock near the massive skeleton of a whale is perhaps the most iconic, but there are plenty of beautiful shots here. The story may be an ugly one, but Leviafan tells it beautifully.

For the record, I’ve only seen two of the movies that were nominated for Best Foreign Feature in the most recent Oscar race. I can say without having seen the others that the wrong film won that award. While almost twice as long as Ida, this is a better film in almost every way. There were a lot of places for Leviafan to go wrong, and it simply doesn’t.

Why to watch Leviafan: A story of how power can and does affect all of us.
Why not to watch: It’s Russian, which means it’s long and nothing good happens.


  1. Those gloomy Russians. Almost as depressing as the Germans.

  2. Two things I'll quibble on - Despite its flaws, I liked Ida more than this. And I got the impression that the affair was an ongoing one whenever he would visit, not one that started during the movie's events.

    To me, the biggest achievement of the moviemakers was in getting this financed by the Russian government when it so clearly condemns that organization (at least at a local level).

    1. My problem with Ida was that it commits what I think is the cardinal sin of movies: it was dull. Leviatfan never bored me despite being almost a full hour longer.

      I agree with you on the funding. This is the sort of film that would seem to end with the director in a gulag.

  3. Every once in a while, you find yourself in a Russian movie and you wonder how you got there. Sometimes it's something like Alexander Nevsky or Andrei Rublev ... or maybe the wonderful silent film Chess Fever and it's more than worth it. Other times, you find yourself scratching your head and looking at the clock and hoping that your friends aren't too mad at you for talking them into it. (Stalker comes to mind.)

    I'm happy to say that Leviathan was in the first category. That's not to say it didn't leave a me a little numb and directionless this morning.

    I started it kind of late last night and just couldn't stay awake to finish it. So I watched the last forty minutes this morning and I'm really glad before I went to bed, I didn't quite get to the part where they reported that Lilya was found dead. That would have been a bit much weighing on my mind.

    As for the ending, I'd really really like to think this movie is being a bit harsh on the Russian Orthodox Church. But I have way too much experience with organized religion to be so naïve.

    1. Many Russian films work subtle criticisms into their fabric. This one is a lot less subtle in many ways. There's an air of fatalism in a lot of films like this one that I find kind of attractive as much as I find it kind of depressing.

      It wouldn't surprise me if this is at least a partial indictment on the church. In general, I'm not sure anyone can really be too harsh on religion, organized or otherwise.

    2. "In general, I'm not sure anyone can really be too harsh on religion, organized or otherwise."