Leave it to the Russians to explore the heavy Biblical question of “Why do innocent people suffer?” In this modern day retelling of the story of Job, Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) is a hot-headed, out-of-work car mechanic who lives with his young wife and teenage son from an earlier marriage in the small town of Pribrezhny on the northern Barents Sea coast. He doesn’t have much but what he does have – a stunning piece of property that looks out over the harbour – has become coveted by the town’s corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov). Being Russia, the mayor has a lot of resources at his disposal and he will stop at nothing to wrest the property out of Kolya’s hands.
Like Job, Kolya has faith that he will win out at the end of the day. He enlists the support of Dimitry (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a friend from his army days who is now a hotshot Moscow lawyer, to handle his grievance in court. Dima is under no illusion about Kolya’s case and his chances of getting fair compensation for the land. He brings with him a file – damning information against Vadim that he thinks will cause the mayor to either give up his claim to the land or, at the very least, pay Kolya what it’s worth. But while Man plans, G-d laughs. Vadim knows that he has both the state and the church behind him, and he uses the might of both to his advantage. Like Job, Kolya sees all that is important to him get stripped away until there is nothing left to do but concede defeat. The village pastor even quotes from the Book of Job to Kolya saying, “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?” The pastor adds that, like Job, Kolya should just accept his fate and live to be 140.
LEVIATHAN has been called a black comedy, a crime drama and a modern day tragedy. It is all of the above. The film’s message, that in Putin’s Russia you can’t take on City Hall or the Orthodox Church, weighs heavily but there are some very humorous moments too. In one scene, Kolya and his buddies head out for a day of shooting practice, complete with copious amounts of vodka and barbecued kebabs. After one of his friends uses an AK-47 to mow down a row of empty glass bottles, they move on to the next round of targets – framed portraits of the Soviet Union’s leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev. When Kolya asks his friend if he has anyone more current, the friend replies that “it’s too early for the current ones. They need to ripen up on the wall a bit longer.”
Curiously, the film received 35% of its funding from Russia’s Ministry of Culture and the filmmakers even got the country’s 30-member Oscar committee to submit the film for Academy Award consideration. However, since its release on its home turf a few months ago, LEVIATHAN has been attacked by the Kremlin, and civic and church leaders. One Russian lawmaker has gone as far as calling for the filmmakers to return the money they received from the government, saying that the film is “against the people, made with the people’s money.” Outside of Russia, the film has received numerous accolades. It won the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Golden Globes and the Best Screenplay Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It lost out to Poland’s IDA for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
The Talmud says that the Leviathan will be slain and its flesh served as a feast to the righteous in the Time to Come. For Kolya, that time can’t come soon enough.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 31:50.)
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