It’s not often I drive 50 miles to go and see a film, so when my friend and I were greeted with the news that the screening of Leviathan we had travelled an hour to see had been postponed our disappointment was tempered just a little by a certain sense of irony. As it turned the cinema had been sent a copy of the immersive 2012 fishing documentary Leviathan rather than Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2014 drama of the same name.
The mix-up however, only goes to show the enduring popularity of the leviathan metaphor and the resonance of the Bible’s book of Job. The story and the powerful imagery that accompanies it has long held appeal for writers and artists.
Having finally got to see it, Zvyagintsev’s film did not disappoint. Whilst Leviathan may not ultimately have won this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar&TM; it was amongst the nominees and caused a stir earlier in the year when it won the Golden Globe in the same week that criticism emerged from the Russian authorities. Bizarrely it failed to win Russia’s Golden Bear award for best film despite a mountain of international acclaim.
The objections from the authorities - both from government officials and from the Orthodox church - are not hard to understand: Leviathan shows both in a negative light, complicit in the events which see Kolya's life spin out of control. It starts when the, seemingly corrupt , mayor uses a compulsory purchase order to turf Kolya off his land. Kolya's old army buddy shows up, offering legal expertise, but escalates the case and then sleeps with Lilya, Kolya's wife.
Things continue along this downward trajectory, meaning comparisons with Job are never far away, but unlike his biblical counterpart, there is no Hollywood ending. The final scenes sees his house being demolished, mirroring the fact that the rest of his life is already in ruins.
The leviathan of the film's title appears in numerous different guises. There are the more literal shots of a whale surfacing from the sea briefly as Lilya ponders her life. Then there is the huge skeleton that lies stranded on the beach, the seemingly invulnerable beast of God's speech proven to be mortal, nevertheless.
Then on a more metaphorical level there is Kolya's battle with the impassive establishment that upholds the mayor and seals his own fate. The system that could be abused in the first place, the courts that rapidly fire off their judgements unmoved by Kolya's protests. Then there is the police who make their initial assumptions and fail to ever really challenge them, like Bildad and his friends only with handcuffs instead of words.
Perhaps the most interesting appearance of the leviathan motif appears as Kolya's house is demolished. In perhaps the film's most visually memorable shot we see the mechanical digger ripping away the wall of Kolya's house shot from inside the house. As the digger's boom reaches up and the scoop arches in the air, it looks for a moment like a mechanical sea monster devouring it's prey, as indeed it is.
Lastly there is the church who may not exactly aide and abet the mayor in his villainy, but certainly offer little resistance and, as the final shot reveals are the ultimate beneficiaries of the mayor's scheming. For a moment the film's final scene appears to offer some ambiguity. Periodically throughout the film the mayor has discussed the meaning of life and faith with his bishop and as the bishop leads a service in a beautiful church the mayor momentarily breaks his beatific pose to whisper to his son "God sees everything, son". Has the mayor somehow been transformed by his conversations with the Bishop? But the film's final shot, at the end of the service reveals that This new church has been built on the place where Kolya's house once stood, his drive way now replaced with a car park full of expensive SUVs.
Yet the depiction of Christianity here is not uniformly negative, in contrast to his bishop, Kolya's local priest, Father Vasily, is one of the few characters still there for him at the end. Whilst Kolya is buying vodka to drown his sorrows, Vasily is buying bread for the poor and it’s in their subsequent conversation that direct mention of, and quotations from, Job are made. Seemingly out of the blue Vasily asks “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or throw a rope on its tongue?” (Job 41:1) and goes on to tell Kolya the story of Job. But it’s difficult to know what to make of Vasily’s version of events. I’m not sure I agree with his explanation that “In the end God took pity on him… and explained it to him clearly”, nor am I convinced that “Job resigned himself to his fate”. Yet the conversation forms a connection between the two men, indeed it’s the last time that anyone in the film speaks to Kolya with compassion and humanity.
Whilst this part of Leviathan’s script means that, on a textual level, it is more biblical, its bleak images don’t quite carry the spiritual power of The Return. There, the images that stay with you are of a beautiful world, largely untouched by human hands. Here, for all the beauty of the shot of Kolya’s son crouched by the skeleton of a whale on the beach, it’s the human aspects of the images that stay with you - the crumbling buildings, the shabby-chic interiors and the beautiful church interior - a white-washed tomb if ever there was one. The imagery here reflects violence, death and decay, and from the moment Koyla strikes his son in one of the film’s opening scenes, there’s a sense of unease and foreboding about the violence that is waiting in the wings.
Perhaps it’s just me, but this sense of violence brewing reminds me of the disturbing deaths of Job’s children in the book’s opening chapter. Whilst Job gets is ultimately rewarded with new children it seems unlikely that this would ever really have compensated him. Indeed it makes me realise one of the things that is most disturbing about the Book of Job is that one of its later editors thought his jarringly “happy ending” would paper over the deep theological cracks left by all the pain and suffering that his predecessor expressed so eloquently.
All quotes are taken from an early version of the script and so may contain slight differences from the words spoken in the the film’s final cut.