Andrei Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan employs a number of familiar Russian tropes: the bleak but beautiful environment; the lure of Moscow; the pettiness of rural tyranny; the farce of bureaucracy; the hypocrisy of religion; the punishing seriousness of drink; the impossibility of doing right. This hyper-Russianness has caused the film political problems at home, where after initial support by the Ministry of Culture it has been branded unpatriotic and offensive, while its foreign reception has focused too much on the supposedly looming presence of Vladimir Putin, who is actually no more prominent than the brief and oblique references to Pussy Riot. Though it is an openly political film, in the widest sense of that word, narrow politics is in danger of obscuring the art.
I suspect the change in the attitude of Russian officialdom, ahead of its delayed general release in the country (with the swearwords cut, due to a recent blasphemy law), owes much to the inflection of the film's interpretation abroad. That interpretation was always going to biased by the traditional Western image of Russia, which assumes that the "existential despair" the Minster of Culture complained of is as common as borscht, that the state is both vicious and incompetent (banning transgender drivers), and that Russian culture is dominated by dissident weirdness (recreating the Eye of Sauron) and self-consciously theatrical politics. In fact the film is far more universal in its analysis of defeat, and angry rather than despairing. Zvyagintsev insists it is based on a true story about a planning dispute in the USA, and given this week's arson attacks in South Oxfordshire, I can quite believe it. What has coloured the reaction, first in the West and then in Russia, is the "new Cold War" vibe.
The setting is the far north west, near Murmansk - a bleak tundra coastline of weak sunshine and roaring waves, with the wrecks of old boats and the bones of a whale embedded in the white sand. The story centres on the age-old and ultra-modern issue of property rights. Kolya repairs cars and trucks for a living, often as a favour to his mates in the Traffic Police. He lives with Lilya, a Chekhovian heroine who works in a fish factory, and Roma, his truculent teenage son from an earlier marriage. His self-built home, overlooking a bay, is being compulsorily-purchased by the council, headed by the outrageously corrupt Vadim, for a derisory sum. Kolya suspects Vadim intends to build a mansion in its place. He calls in his old army buddy, Dima, now a smooth Moscow lawyer, to help secure adequate compensation. Dima proposes the threat of blackmail, exposing Vadim's corrupt practices to more powerful officials in the "vertical", rather than the angry confrontation that is Kolya's default setting. Everyone drinks, and criticises the drinking of others.
As the Hobbesian title makes clear, this is a tale about authority, but the twist on the standard cinematic treatment of the subject is that these are characters in search of it, rather than rebelling against it. Kolya seeks justice from the state, Vadim seeks sanction from the church, while Roma both wants and rejects his father's authority. The tragedy stems from the refusal of those who are offered a position of authority to accept it: "I am not your confessor". This is because authority entails moral responsibility, and none of the characters can bear that burden. Instead they make do with naked power, from physical abuse to institutional corruption, or they submit to that power and exploit the limited opportunities that come their way. The cold air hums with the threat of violence and betrayal, as well as the music of Philip Glass's Akhnaten (another tale of authority).
Leviathan provides an interesting contrast with the year's other "foreign" film hit, Ida, which is also in the running for the Oscars. Pawel Pawlikowski's beautifully shot monochrome film also explored the themes of church and state, justice and betrayal, self-sacrifice and escape. There is less drinking, but a lot of smoking, and jazz. In the Poland of the early 1960s, the violence is historic and authority still intact, not least because of the legitimation of the struggle against the Nazis, but a reference to the promise of Gdansk, where antigovernment riots broke out in 1970 and Solidarity was formed in 1980, hints that this authority will shortly erode. Lilya in Leviathan could almost be an older Ida who chose not to return to the convent and has regretted the loss of authority ever since.
In the West Leviathan is seen as critical of Putin, whose framed picture appears on a wall (apparently in situ when the film crew borrowed the location) and who is referred to obliquely in the company of earlier, Soviet leaders. The simplistic interpretation is that this parochial backwater is a microcosm of a nation riddled by corruption and a lack of moral accountability, but in a Russian context this can also be interpreted as a plea for authority, which is precisely Putin's political pitch. This nuance has been lost in the noise of the government and the Orthodox church condemning Zvyagintsev's work as an insult to the nation, but it bears repeating that this negative reaction largely occurred after the film's foreign success. Like it or not, events in Ukraine have heavily influenced reactions to the film both at home and abroad. For the West, Leviathan is evidence that Putin's domestic support may be fragile; for Putin's supporters, it is evidence that the opposition is unpatriotic, potty-mouthed and quite possibly gay (the only sex-scene is heterosexual, but there are shots of the buff Dima in the shower).
Leviathan is a Dostoyevskian tale in its polyphonic structure, as much as in its biblical references, father-son relationships (Vadim and the Bishop, as well as Kolya and Roma), compulsive behaviour, guilt and suicide. There is even a last-minute reprieve from a firing squad. The bishop is a cynic who owes a debt to the novelist's Grand Inquisitor, but he also has something of the assurance of the Soviet-era ideologist and the smoothness of the modern "biznessman". Everything is process and the correct observance of form. At the end of the film, it is revealed that Kolya's home has been demolished to make way for a new, onion-domed church. This could be a concrete metaphor for the new-old Russia of Putin, but the choice of a church rather than a mansion for the mayor suggests that Zvyagintsev is concerned more with dishonest than honest corruption; pernicious ideology rather than the quotidien abuse of power.
In contrast to the bishop, the parish priest is poor and righteous, but he is also a fool. His sermon to Kolya is the standard quietist nonsense about Job accepting God's will, but the scene tells us another story. They meet in the store, where Kolya buys ("what else") two bottles of vodka and the priest multiple loaves of bread. Kolya offers to carry the priest's load back to the ramshackle presbytery where a Russian Mrs Doyle passes on a loaf to a nearby swineherd. We finish with the sight of pigs troughing swill. Though some Western critics have seen the priest as the moral centre of the film, largely because of the contrast with the venal bishop, this small parable within the larger story suggests that the consolation of religion (the bread of Christ) is just more pigswill.