‘Leviathan’: Bad Post-Communism


Leviathan, a film by director Andrei Zvyagintsev, is populated by corrupt, drunken, nihilistic Ruskies that reek of herring and live in barren, rocky expanses somewhere near the Arctic. Zvyagintsev presents the struggles of these quasi-Dostoevskian characters in a modern Lily-Putian milieu.

There’s something about Russians and drama, a metaphysical depth rarely found elsewhere: Leviathan is a movie propelled by the cold vitality of the Stanisvlaskian method; deliberate performances create both reality and what seems so unreal about today’s Russia. With absolute normality a post-historic monster lurks in the tumultuous waters of the Barents Sea.

Property in these parts is up for grabs. A thug in the City Hall can expropriate anyone with the same impunity as a boyard of the eighteenth century or a Soviet commissar. The world changes, Zvyagintsev tells us, but Mother Russia remains the same.

A dreadful destiny awaits Nikolai (Aleksey Serebyakov), the fall man living on a fish farm not far from New Zembla. His wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) is a beautiful, sad stranger. A son from a previous marriage detests this dead-end stepmother employed at the local fishery. Everything is too chilly and remote for any kind of argumentativeness, and life settles in a sort of arrested turmoil. Then the eviction notice arrives and Nikolai telephones Moscow to hire a lawyer.

Not just any lawyer, but cool Dmitryi (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), his best friend from the military service’s years. Meanwhile the local characters (an elderly war veteran; a traffic cop and his brutish wife; a wicked Orthodox monk and various public officials and their henchmen) go about their drinking, shooting and conniving.

Enters Mer, the city mayor (Roman Madyanov). Here my wife Esther María, informed admirer of Russian thespians, commented on how easy it is to win an Oscar in this country –where there are no Roman Madyanovs! The scene where an inebriated Mer pays a visit to Nikolai and his chum attorney, all dumb and menacing, is a tour de force deserving the applause of old Stany himself.

Every bilious inch of Mayor Mer denounces the man as the embodiment of bullshit legality (a statue of Lenin still looms large over the Palace of Justice). The separation of church, police, judicial and executive powers is yet to be fully internalized in Russia. This is the Wild West set in Antarctica, something akin to There Will Be Blood of Paul Thomas Anderson, but with cheap vodka stirred in the milkshake.

At the disputed location, over generous (and grossly unhealthy) helpings of borscht, alcohol and cigarettes, the case is discussed, and the fancy attorney touches upon questions of guilt, democracy and innocence. Lawyers will be lawyers, and soon Dmtriy gets busy digging up some unspeakable dirt on Mayor Mer. Muckraking and ball-tugging are part of the new deal. The oriental satrapy that dreamt of becoming an European nation has only set herself up for a rude awakening.

A holiday in the mountains intervenes. The old veteran, the traffic cop and his wife, the disgruntled son and his peers, plus the love triangle of King, Queen, Knave (what follows is, quite naturally, Nabokovian), drink and frolic and shoot, using framed pictures of Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Stalin as targets. There’s one clay pigeon missing: “the one at the Kremlin presently.”

During the excursion something sordid happens. The stepson and his friends spy on Dmitryi and Lilya, and watch them shagging in the forest. Nikolai punishes the cheaters. Beaten, both at court and by Mer’s thugs, Dmitryi boards the last train back to Moscow.

A remorseful Lilya is pardoned by the cuckold, although not by the wronged youth. Scorned at the fishery and cornered at home, she jumps from the craggy shore to meet Leviathan. The Russian soul is bared and exposed in a brief moment of sadness. The veteran, the cop and the woman falsely testify against Nikolai, who gets 15 years for murder. Property is now free to change hands. What appears to be the wrath of God is Andrei Zvyagintsev’s verdict on his godforsaken country.


Two days after seeing this film, Esther María and I went to the Royce Hall to see Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe in Bob Wilson’s production of The Old Lady, by Russian playwright Daniil Kharms (1905-1942). The casting of Baryshnikov for this performance as the Man A/B closed a gaping hole of 70 years since Kharms arrest and subsequent internment in the psychiatric ward at Prison No. 1, in Leningrad. The war broke and nothing more was heard of the poet-clown who dressed like Sherlock Holmes and brought polished silverware to proletarian lunchrooms. From Stalin to Putin: the almost biblical enormity of Russia’s wrongs perhaps deserves the name of Leviathan.

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