Leviathan (2014): Zvyagintsev’s Powerful (Oscar-Nominated) Russian Satire of Greed and Corruption

Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s brilliant film, is a dark, biting satire about greed and corruption in the institutional system of contemporary Russia, by focusing on one ordinary and typical family.

Set in the fictional Russian town of Pribrezhny, the plot follows the tragic fate of Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), a car mechanic, his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his teenage son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodyaev).

The ordinary people in this forbidding tale are treated as insects–“drowning in shit,” as one character says.  They are citizens with no human or civil rights. The politicians and the church, which seem to be joining forces for the same cause, set out to maintain (or even make worse) the status quo, that ordinary residents are kept in their place. Photographs of President Putin are very much in evidence, hanging on the walls of the office of the corrupt local dignitaries.

The protagonist, Kolya, is an impetuous man battling with the local mayor (Roman Madyanov) to hold on to his house.  It’s a modest home in the seaside town that his family has owned for decades.

But the mayor, who wants it as part of a larger property development scam (to build luxury houses), is ready to use any means possible, blackmail and intimidation included, to make Kolya leave.

The film opens as Kolya’s appeal is overruled by a judge, a female one.  She is heard reading the lengthy verdict in a rapid monotone, sort of a Kafkaesque ritual familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a Russian courtroom or any other “red tape” bureaucratic institution.

Motivated by tradition, pride, and strong sense of injustice, Kolya decides to stand up to his rights, enlisting the services of a hotshot lawyer friend from Moscow, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov).  Thus begins a socially relevant, intimidating tale, a modern variation on the biblical Book of Job, sort of  David and Goliath battle.

Meanwhile, there are also problems on the domestic front: Kolya’s young and beautiful wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) is attracted to Dima, and his teenage son (Sergey Pokhadaev), from Kolya’s previous marriage is rebellious and detests his stepmom.

Bleak in tone and imagery, Leviathan is unflinchingly ambitious in its goals and intents.  The wintry vistas, which are visually stunning, are highlighted by long, poetic shots of the huge whalebones that lie discarded on the deserted shore.

The film’s most upsetting element is its recognition that Kolya’s plight is typical of many other ordinary residents, and that the film’s somber message goes way beyond this particular story (or region), representing everyday life in other post-communist countries.

Zvyagintsev won the Cannes Film Fest Best Screenwriting Award for what is a searingly frontal attack on the current Russian political system, showing ordinary Russians crushed beneath a fiendishly corrupt bureaucracy.

The director has said that his story was inspired by a case in the U.S., which he was able to apply easily to the current state of affairs in Russia.  He further noted that he intended the small-town Russian tale to be a universal parable. Indeed, the movie draws deliberate parallels with the “Book of Job,” equating the villains with “Leviathan” and three characters with Job’s three friends.

The fourth film of the gifted director, who is 50, is his most powerful work to date, both thematically and stylistically.

The Director about his Russia:

“We live in a feudal system when everything is in the hands of one person, and everyone else is in a vertical of subordination,” he says by way of explaining the power structure of modern Russia, “where kissing upwards and kicking downwards are the main modes of operation.”

Detailed Synopsis

The town’s crooked Mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) has undertaken a legal plot to expropriate the land of Kolya’s house. The plan is supposedly to build a telecommunications mast, while offering an undervalued compensation, but Kolya believes that his real plan is to build a villa for himself.

Kolya’s friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a sharp and successful lawyer from Moscow, tries to fight the expropriation through the local court system.
During the trial, Kolya is arrested for shouting at corrupt police officers, and in his absence, Lilya engages in sexual encounter with Dima. When Kolya learns of the affair, he assaults the couple.

Mayor Vadim visits his friend, a local Russian Orthodox Church bishop (Valeriy Grishko), for spiritual comfort, and the latter encourages him to solve his problems forcefully.

Vadim and his thugs abduct Dima and carry out a mock execution, advising him to return to Moscow. Afterwards Vadim continues his drive to expropriate Kolya’s house. The last appearance of Dima shows him looking out of the window of a train, en route back to Moscow.

Lilya returns home to Kolya, but she is depressed by the public revelation of her affair. While the family is packing to move out, Kolya and Lilya have sex in the basement. Roma witnesses the event and flees the house. He returns home late at night, and blames Lilya for everything that is going wrong in their lives.

That night, Lilya, unable to sleep, leaves the house  and walks near the cliffs alone; her body is discovered a few days later. A mournful Kolya starts drinking and, meeting a priest, asks why God is punishing him. The priest quotes from the Biblical book of Job, and how after accepting his fate, Job was rewarded by God with a happy life.

The police arrest Kolya, claiming that he raped Lilya and murdered her with a blunt object. Evidence against him includes his and Lilya’s own friends’ testimonies about threats he made when he discovered their affair. Kolya is convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years in a maximum-security prison. With no family left, and to avoid orphanage, Roma agrees to be taken in by Kolya’s former friends.

Mayor Vadim holds that Kolya got what he deserved for having stood up against him. In the end, Kolya’s house is torn down and Vadim’s project is revealed to be a lavish church for the bishop.

The film concludes with a sermon by the bishop, attended by the mayor.  The bishop extols God’s truth versus the world’s truth, and says that good intentions do not excuse evil acts. He then urges the congregation not to act with force or cunning, but to put their trust in Christ.

Aleksei Serebryakov as Kolya
Roman Madyanov as Vadim, the mayor
Vladimir Vdovichenkov as Dima, the lawyer friend
Elena Lyadova as Lilya
Sergey Pokhodaev as Roma
Anna Ukolova as Anzhela
Igor Savochkin as investigator
Margarita Shubina as Goryunovа, the prosecutor