|Nikolay, played by Aleksey Serebryakov, wonders where his life went wrong in Leviathan.|
Lay thy hand upon [the leviathan]. Remember the battle and do so no more.
Behold, the hope of him is in vain: Will not one be cast down even at the sight of him?
None is so fierce that he dare stir him up. Who then is he that can stand before me?
Who hath first given unto me, that I should repay him? Whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine.
– Job 41:8-11 (American Standard Version)
Every day, in every part of the world, thousands look to God for an answer. They are not all seeking the same answer, but most are asking the same question. Why me? Why should I get cancer when I have so much to live for? Why should I be laid off when my neighbor gets a raise? Why do the rains not come and my crops not grow? Why have you done this to me, oh, Lord? God is famously silent. So, we look to our holy books and holy men, whatever and whoever they may be. One points to the others, the circle is complete, and we are no more assured of our circumstances than before.
Perhaps we are directing our energies in the wrong direction. We look to the metaphysical, the philosophical, and the religious for clues to the meaning of our lives or reasons for the hand we have been dealt. In the details, though, if we observe closely enough, there are perfectly mundane, even petty explanations for what is happening. If only we were willing to look, to accept the tactile, the explicable, we might find the truth, and that truth would be so terrifying it would be impossible to go on.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan tells the story of Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov), whose life is comfortable, if not remarkable. He, his wife, and his son life in a seaside home in a Russian coastal city. The local mayor sets his sights on the property, and so begins Nikolay’s the long, agonizing journey into the abyss. He tries to fight fair, he tries to fight dirty, but he realizes too late that the only way to win is not to fight at all. “None is so fierce that he dare stir him up.”
At a certain point in the spiral, Nikolay realizes he has lost control of his life, that he has become a bystander to the terrible events befalling him. He asks his priest for words of wisdom or comfort, anything to guide him through his trouble. The priest quotes the first few lines of the biblical passage above, but he stops just short of the section I have quoted. If he had continued, perhaps his words would have meant more to Nikolay.
The leviathan is a great sea monster as described in the Old Testament. Sometimes, it is used to refer to Satan himself, and others, it is simply a stand-in for the uncontrollable forces of nature. “Lay thy hand upon him. Remember the battle and do so no more.” This is the lesson Nikolay must learn, and the implication is that he has brought this on himself. Whether or not that is true, by failing to realize the relationship between his actions and his circumstance, he has done himself no favors.
If I have been a bit cryptic as to the nature and specifics of the story, forgive me. To pull from another religious source – the Salem witch trials – the film plays like the pressing death of suspected witch. Nikolay’s travails are stones, and each setback is another placed upon his chest. It is certain he is being crushed, but no one stone is responsible. Rather, it is the sum of their combined pressure that does the damage.
Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin seem to delight in placing their stones on the protagonist’s chest, and by refusing to let him breathe, the audience is suffocated in the bleakness as well. It is masterfully patient storytelling, leavened only occasionally by pitch-black humor of the sort you might find on death row. There is physical pain, mental anguish, betrayal, and deception, and throughout it all, Zvyagintsev is careful to draw out the torture as long as possible until the moment we can take no more. Only when we admit we are broken, only when we swear to remember the battle, will relief come.
What he wants is a confession, but they are neither Nikolay’s nor the audience’s sins on trial. The leviathan is the beast we are meant to dissect, but what can we learn from a rotted carcass? Nikolay’s leviathan is the power structure of modern Russia, that corrupt behemoth that hides in a labyrinthine bureaucracy. Zvyagintsev, Negin, Serebryakov, and much of the cast and crew were born and raised in the USSR, living their childhoods and early adulthoods under communist rule. The film is greatly informed by this upbringing, and the picture it paints is necessarily ugly.
No one with power is to be trusted. From top to bottom, it is the structure itself that is desiccated and decayed. Simply by engaging with any part of the structure – be it governmental, military, or religious – Nikolay is subjecting himself to ruin. The film argues any unfortunate soul who comes across the leviathan is destined to be cast down. Hope is in vain, for what can one hope for from such an interaction. To escape with one’s dignity intact and life unsullied would be the best case. Nikolay’s is not the best case.
Despite being the architect of the story, Zvyagintsev does not get his confession because he knows that is not the world of Russia nor the world at all. It is enough that the audience learns through Nikolay that the corruption is at the core of the nation’s being. It has become an essential part of the country’s soul. Late in the film, one of the story’s powerful men attends church with his family. He points to a painting on the wall and tells his young son that God sees everything. That may be, but does he care?
See it? Yes.