Much has already been made of the politics of Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s acclaimed film that touches on corrupt authority, rule of law (or lack thereof), and bureaucratic impotence in a small Russian village on the Barents Sea. Kolya is a hot-tempered, proud man of impulse and rural vulgarity, prone to drink, shout, and shoot before thinking. He is married to Lilya, young and emotionally distant, and is father to Roma, a problematic teenager from an earlier marriage. The film opens amidst Kolya’s vicious legal dispute with the local mayor, Vadim, a small time ruffian who runs the town like his personal fiefdom, complete with bodyguards and black SUVs. The mayor covets Kolya’s business and property—the house Kolya built with his own hands, on his family’s land—and he will get it, with the presumption of King David desiring and acquiring Bathsheba. Kolya can either lie down or fight; he chooses the latter, with the help of his lawyer friend from Moscow, Dmitri.
Zvyagintsev has come under some flak for an unflattering portrayal of a Russia that the West has been predisposed to view unfavorably. Much of the aggressive and authoritarian nature of Russian politics is at odds with the liberal outlook that broadly informs the West. The blatant corruption that appears to extend even to the least significant levels of society in Leviathan is often elevated, through its regularity and sheer audacity, to farce. Some of the funniest scenes are of institutional ineptitude, of authorities casually side-stepping the law to get what they want. In an early scene, a magistrate speed-reads an absurdly long declaration in a tiny courtroom, informing Kolya and his wife that, alas, there is nothing to be done about their property, that the mayor’s claim on it is, in fact, legal. Later, drunk and worked up by his victory, Mayor Vadim decides to pay Kolya a visit at the property that will soon be his. He does this because he can, to rub salt in Kolya’s wound, and teach him a lesson about authority. Kolya, of course, has been drinking too, and the confrontation quickly becomes a tottering, sputtering competition of one-upmanship, each man trying to establish the greater manhood, in true juvenile fashion.
Zvyagintsev has noted in an interview that Leviathan was partly inspired by St. Augustine’s concept of rule of law as articulated in City of God. According to Augustine, when the state refuses the strictures of the law, it becomes no better than a gang of thieves—or, in Zvyagintsev’s phrase, “eternal and omnipotent Russian cronyism.” Leviathan certainly works as a political fable by dramatizing the dubious, kleptocratic ruling style that has been associated with modern Russia and the plight of those oppressed by it. In a scene of high spirit and humor midway through the film, Kolya and his friends bring vodka and guns into the mountains. Their targets: portraits of Russia’s twentieth century leaders. Elsewhere, the framed visage of Vladimir Putin provides the only ornamentation in Mayor Vadim’s office, silently blessing the extortion and brute lawlessness that occurs behind closed institutional doors. Authority may be petty, bureaucracy a farce, but the powers of the world appear always to prevail, rebuffing the challenges of the weak with disheartening tenacity.
In this political sense, it doesn’t take much work to see Leviathan as an ironic comment on Thomas Hobbes’s treatise of the same name. In Hobbes, the absolutist state is the titular beast—“upon earth there is not his like” (Job 41:33 KJV)—a sovereign, idealistic savior of humankind in its deplorable natural condition. It is self-evidently above reproach, even above the law. What Hobbes forgets, and what Zvyagintsev is eager to point out, is that Leviathan’s grandeur and strength is essentially a sham. Behind all states and sovereigns lie fallible, corruptible, human individuals, who make the dream of a perfect society all but impossible by their very humanness. The great beast, which is meant for protection, becomes a decaying carcass, an oppressive weight that stifles the individual voice. The egregiousness of its instantiation in Russia only shows its inherent deficiency as a political theory.
Politics aside, Leviathan’s true concerns are universal and spiritual. The ambiguity of Leviathan’s title serves it well; this is just as much a retelling of the biblical story of Job as it is a political tale. Like Job, Kolya finds himself the involuntary butt of a cosmic joke. In addition to losing his house and living, he has his family to contend with (or rather Kolya’s family has to contend with him). Kolya’s relationship with his wife is not warm. This is as much, if not more, due to Kolya’s temper and unpredictability as whatever faults Lilya may have. But it is clear that strong feeling exists between the two, which brings even more pain when their marriage takes a dark turn. Kolya’s friends aren’t terribly supportive, his son doesn’t fully understand him; little by little, calamities are heaped upon Kolya’s head. He is a man deprived of everything, a pitiful nothing tossed about in a ruthless world.
The catch is that, in Zvyagintsev’s telling, we are afforded no behind-the-scenes look at a God who, directing and sustaining Job in his sufferings, puts things right in the end. God appears to be absent, or at least silent. The artful, agnostic lawyer friend Dmitri, who at first shows promise in fighting the system but in the end brings only destruction, lays it out unequivocally: “I only believe in facts.” The situation is worsened by the outright hypocrisy of religious types. A priest indulges in lavish meals and ostentatious appearances, while Mayor Vadim betrays no hint of cognitive dissonance in admonishing his young son, “Remember, God sees all.” The glaring irony here is that Vadim, and authority itself, doesn’t really believe it.
Not all are Pharisees, however. Late in the film, when Kolya is at his low point, we meet another priest, perhaps the one truly artless character we have encountered. Unlike other characters, he is the only one who makes no pretensions to power and who lives in an almost naïve renunciation of it. In response to Kolya’s melodramatic demand for divine answers to his suffering, this priest relates the story of Job. Humans may be nothing compared to Leviathan, but Leviathan is nothing compared to the might of God. Who are we, then, to stand against him? With all the simple directness of Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima, this priest reminds Kolya that, in the end, God rewarded Job’s faithfulness and perseverance with a long life and large family. “Isn’t that a myth?” retorts Kolya. The priest, unaware that he is walking into a punch line, responds, “No, it’s in Bible.” Kolya may be unconvinced, but this interaction points to an understanding of power that goes beyond the cycle of oppression perpetuated by worldly authority. Here, Zvyagintsev joins a long tradition of Russian art that boldly takes on the complexities of humanity’s spiritual condition in a fallen world.
Kolya is the only character in the film who cries, “Why, Lord?” He may not see God, but he is the only one who calls on God in the hope that he will hear, who acknowledges—even confesses—the potential power of God’s strength. For Augustine, confession is an act of belief, one that goes beyond fact or proof. It is the outpouring of the understanding that, as creatures, we hold no power in any real sense of the word; what analogous power we do hold is contingent upon Power itself. Paradoxically, only by assenting to the limitation implied in this proposition are the self and state able to attain true freedom, breaking out of the cycle of tyranny and oppression that defines life in a world governed solely by the will to power. Denying this limitation does not obscure the divine source of power. It merely transfers that divinity from God to self.
The confessional attitude could not be more different than that of Dmitri the lawyer, or Mayor Vadim. Vadim is anxious, uncertain that things will work out in his favor. He attempts to receive solace from his priest friend, but the one thing he cannot do is confess—either that he has done anything wrong or that God is watching him. This priest is not too concerned to hear his confession anyway. “All power comes from God,” the priest says disingenuously, without any thought as to what that might really mean. “As long as it suits Him, fear not.” “And so, it suits Him?” replies Vadim, fidgeting and fearful, like a cornered animal.
In Leviathan, earthly powers—which include institutional religion—trample the weak. There is never a doubt of their victory; such has it always been, and such might it ever be. But there is just enough in Leviathan to hint at a crack in the system, a brief glimmer of light that is enough to keep the downtrodden—which in spiritual terms, extends to all who bear the yoke of the world—fighting for authentic truth, justice, and love. These are the true measures of righteous law. Zvyagintsev does not let Mayor Vadim get away with his hypocrisy without cutting to a close-up shot of an icon of Christ in the illuminated church. The icon’s silent, harsh eyes accuse: “I never knew you.”
The film begins and ends with extended shots of the sea, gray-blue waves crashing against the rocks as the Philip Glass soundtrack invariably drones on. The images and sounds suggest the chaos of the human predicament set against the permanent dominion of the strong. But how permanent are these powers, really? These bookend shots point to some power more permanent than the film’s temporal (and literal) frame. None can pull in Leviathan with a fishhook, nor tie down its tongue with a rope; yet even this beast, in all its mighty power, must in the end yield to the law that restrains it, the power that made it.