Plot The modern day, Kolya lives with his second wife Lilya and son Roma in a small coastal town in Northern Russia. The town’s Mayor has undertaken legal action to expropriate the land where Kolya and his family live. Kolya’s friend Dima, who works as a lawyer comes from Moscow to help Kolya appeal the court ruling. After the Mayor pays a visit to Kolya’s house late at night to threaten him, Dima and Kolya unsuccessfully try to report him to the police and Kolya is arrested. Dima tries to bargain with the Mayor, revealing that he is in possession of incriminating evidence against him. On an outing to a nearby lake with Roma finds out that Dima and Lilya are having an affair and Kolya assaults them both. Dima is called upon by the Mayor and is driven to a secluded area where he is tied up, beaten and subject to a mock execution. Dima then returns to Moscow. Kolya forgives Lilya and they get ready to move. Lilya goes missing after Roma blames her for the family’s problems and her body is discovered washed up on the shore. Kolya is charged with Lilya’s murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The family home is demolished and the Mayor builds a lavish orthodox church in its place.
Film note When Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation at the turn of the millennium, he pledged to restore political and economic stability in the country. A feature of the Putin presidency was an effort to restore a sense of national pride and prestige to Russian identity that had been lost following the dismantlement of the Soviet Union in 1991. State funded cinema production aimed to reflect this. Miguel Vázquez Liñán notes that in 2008, when the governmental Council for the Development of the Russian Film Industry was created (of which Putin is chair), they pledged to finance “productions that disseminate patriotism, military service, family values” (2010, 174). Esteemed Russian film director Andrei Zviagintsev’s most recent film Leviathan (2014) tells the story of a family unit struggling against the town’s corrupt mayor and judicial system and because of this, the film was met with an icy reception from many in Russia, despite its international success.
In January 2015 following the film’s UK release, British newspaper The Guardian quoted Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov who wrote that the film was: “a cinematic anti-Russian, anti-Putin manifesto” in response to the film’s unsympathetic portrayal of government officials and the Russian Orthodox Church. In the same article, it was reported that the Russian ministry of culture were considering restricting distribution of films that “defame the national culture” (Walker). The film was critiqued at home because it sought to challenge aspects of the post-Soviet political identity which Putin claims to advocate, such as political transparency, patriotism, respect for the law, and an end to rent-seeking and corrupt oligarchs. This essay will detail how the social critique in the film is portrayed, and why this is significant in relation to the contemporary social and political climate in Russia. I will argue that the social critique challenges the ideals of post-Soviet Russia, synonymous with the Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Secondly, I will consider how the role of the film’s setting and landscape, a small coastal town in the North of Russia, filmed in the Kola Peninsula, is tied into the film’s themes and why upon closer reading, the landscapes can be understood as a comment upon environmental damage and deterioration in the Arctic.
Questionable authority Throughout Leviathan, the government and law enforcement authorities are portrayed as corrupt. The film centers on the story of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a working class car mechanic who becomes entangled in web of corrupt judicial bureaucracy as he tries to save his land from being expropriated for an undervalued sum by the town’s mayor. Kolya has inherited the land from his father, it having been in his family for generations. It is where he has built his home and also his livelihood, as the garage he works stands adjacent to his house. Kolya is deeply frustrated by his predicament; he and his friends exhibit feelings of distain, cynicism and mistrust towards the government and law enforcement services.
This hostility is evident from the outset, when Kolya meets his old friend from the army, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov). Now working as a lawyer in Moscow, Dima has travelled North to help Kolya with his case. Kolya picks Dima up from the train station and as they drive, the pair raucously laugh at the suggestion of “an honest cop”, as though they cannot believe such a thing exists. With the town’s police department as the film’s reference point one can understand their lack of faith in Russian law enforcement. Kolya’s friend Pasha (Aleksey Rozin) works as a traffic policeman, but he is seen driving his wife and young son after a day of relentless vodka drinking. Furthermore after Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the town’s mayor, turns up at Kolya’s house in order to torment the family while he is drunk, Dima tries to submit a letter of complaint at the town’s police department. With a tone of deep cynicism he tells Kolya he doesn’t think the officer on shift will accept the letter, even though by law he has to. As Dima predicts, the police refuse the letter and arrest Kolya for shouting in the waiting room. Dima continues to try to file the complaint, but is met with staunch bureaucracy as he finds there is no one in the town “authorized” to accept the statement. While President Putin affirmed that under his leadership Russia would become strong, stable, democratic and “socially just” state (Sakwa 2004, 164), Kolya and Dima’s pessimistic attitude towards social authority and Pasha’s lack of respect for the law which he is paid to enforce is more reminiscent of the collective mood in Russia during the Yeltsin era, where corruption was endemic and many Russians lost faith in the country’s future.
The local police aside, the town’s mayor is undoubtedly the film’s most scathing representation of authority. Julian Graffy writes that Vadim’s characterisation is inherently unlikable, describing his physicality as “fleshy, crude and gluttonous”. Alongside this, Vadim is aggressive, ruthlessly driven and obsessed with being reelected for another term as mayor. He bribes court and police officials with expensive houses, holidays and cash in order to orchestrate situations to his advantage. Dima unearths evidence that incriminates Vadim in a number of crimes, and although the crimes are not explicitly described, Kolya’s reaction to reading them suggests they are serious — he cannot believe Vadim hasn’t been sent to prison for what he is responsible for. Alluding to corruption in higher political spheres, Dima responds to Kolya’s disbelief with: “someone up top needs him”. This is symbolized in the scenes within Vadim’s office. Above Vadim’s desk, a portrait of Putin hangs on the wall “up top”. The picture is placed to left side of the room; Putin’s head tilting slightly downwards, an omnipotent presence looking directly onto Vadim’s desk.
Again, with Vadim as the political reference point in the film, the characters’ cynicism towards governing power is understandable. Russian governing authority is painted in a dismal light throughout Leviathan, there is not a moment when it is redeemed and the characters’ distain for political leaders is crystalized in the scene at the lake, where Kolya, friends and family celebrate their acquaintance, Stepanych’s birthday. Stepanych presents a selection of portrait pictures depicting past Russian leaders. Lenin, Brezhnev and Gorbachev are seen amongst others in the pile. The portraits are to be used as targets for the men’s shooting practice. In this scene Pasha and Kolya laugh with glee at the prospect of firing at the political figures, although Kolya, suggestively, desires to shoot more recent leaders. Stepanych looks down at the pictures with a fixed dour expression of disappointment. Putin has aimed to restore a sense of national pride in the Russian people and many have faith in him, but this scene insists that the men in Leviathan do not respect Russian politicians, who for centuries have promised the nation emancipation from autocratic leadership, but so often, failed to deliver. In reference to this scene, the presence of Putin’s portrait carefully placed in Vadim’s office where blackmail, bribing and criminality take place suggests that the filmmakers, like their characters, have too have lost faith in the current government’s ability to ensure democracy.
Church and state As mentioned above, in addition to being criticized for portraying Russian politicians in a negative light, Leviathan was criticized for its explicit allusion to institutional corruption within the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian minster of culture Vladimir Medinsky felt the representation of the Church in the film was blasphemous, calling it “beyond all limits” (qtd. in Graffy). At a surface level the film suggests corruption within the church by affirming a strong allegiance between the bishop and Vadim throughout the narrative. This is also subtly supported by the use of camera work, which frames the church and the corrupt court in very similar ways. Early on in the film, Judge Tarasova (later exposed as Vadim’s insider) delivers the court’s verdict whereby Kolya’s appeal is denied. The camera captures the courtroom in full then slowly dollies into Tarasova’s face as she reads. Since the ruling is dubious, Tarasova reads the verdict incredibly quickly making what she says difficult to follow. Kolya and the viewer and left confused, unable to absorb and understand Tarasova’s monologue.
Later, a similar slow dolly camera movement is used during a cryptic conversation between Vadim and the Bishop. Vadim is anxious because Dima is blackmailing him – Dima has threatened to disclose the evidence that incriminates Vadim unless he pays a just sum of money for Kolya’s land. The Bishop does not wish to hear the details of Vadim’s problem but assures him that he is powerless, since the situation is in God’s hands. However, moments later, the Bishop contradicts himself, encouraging Vadim to take control and solve his problems with his own might, otherwise his enemy will believe he is weak. Following this discussion, the camera slowly and methodically dollies into a bust of Jesus that stands on the Bishop’s mantelpiece until the bust is seen in close up. Consequentially, Vadim follows the latter half of the Bishop’s advice and obviates his problem by subjecting Dima to a beating and mock execution, frightening him out of town. With this, Kolya surrenders his land for the undervalued price and gets ready to leave his home. The slow dolly camera technique is replicated a final time as the Bishop delivers his sermon in the town’s new church at the end of the film. In each of these examples the camera does not assign point of view to a character, it is omniscient, and the slow movement into close up from a fixed angle treats the Bishop and his faith vis-à-vis the bust of Christ, and the corrupt judge Tarasova with the same watchful scrutiny. With this, the camera seeks to expose their hypocrisy – the Bishop and judge speak the right jargon but undermine their respective doctrines by colluding with mayor and his corrupt schemes.
Richard Sakwa stresses the influence of the Church in post-Soviet society, writing: “The Russian Orthodox Church played an exceptional role in the development of Russian national identity and the very idea of Russianness […] the church helped in part to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the Communist Party and thus acted as a source of values around which much of the nation could unite” (169-170). By associating a corrupt and thuggish politician with the Orthodox Church, the film explicitly suggests that the institution lacks transparency, which was greatly offensive to many Russian viewers. However, Zviagintsev is not the first to accuse the Orthodox Church of hypocrisy. In 2012 feminist punk collective, Pussy Riot staged a musical protest in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in which they criticized the Church’s most powerful representative, Patriarch Kirill for supporting Putin. Leviathan suggests an alliance to Pussy Riot as the band are referenced and evoked at various stages in the film. Most explicitly, the band’s name flashes on a television screen in Kolya’s house. More symbolically Pussy Riot are evoked as the film draws to a close. In his sermon the Bishop raises his voice and condemns: “those that blaspheme by calling demonic rites a prayer”. A shot of three Orthodox nuns listening to the Bishop intently accompanies this particular address. Here, it is as if the Bishop is directly referring to Pussy Riot’s protest song (“Punk prayer”) and three nuns represent a tamed and silenced, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, the members of Pussy Riot charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to imprisonment. Pussy Riot’s lyrics are evoked in the shots following the Bishop’s sermon too. In “Punk prayer” Pussy Riot mocked Patriarch Kirill’s wealth, they sang: “The Church’s praise of rotten dictators. The cross-bearers’ procession of black limousines” (cited in Denysenko 1068) and as Vadim and his guests drive away from the town’s lavish new church where the sermon took place, they do so in state-of-the-art, black 4×4 cars, associated with wealth and power and as they depart, they drive in single file, forming a procession.
Graffy eloquently summarizes the treatment of the church and the authorities in Leviathan, writing that it “elides the difference between earthly and heavenly power.” Working to support this, much of the film’s use of setting engages with this theme. Set on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, images of whales, dead and alive, reoccur throughout and naturally evoke the film’s title — the name of the indomitable biblical sea monster, Leviathan. This is seen when Kolya’s son, Roma, cries alone at the beach while staring at the skeleton of a whale washed up onto the shore. In Lilya’s final scene before she is found dead (her body also washed up onto the shore), she stares at a whale coming up for air before it dives back down into the depths of the ocean. Furthermore, as Graffy has observed, the bulldozer used to demolish Kolya’s home once he has been imprisoned takes the shape of a sea monster rising from the water. He writes: “The bulldozers are shot as if they too are Leviathanic monsters emerging from the deep”. But Kolya is not the victim of heavenly prophecy or ill fate, as the town’s priest suggests to Kolya as he quotes the Bible’s Book of Job. He is victim of an almighty power structure that has infiltrated his home, the church, the police and the court so that Kolya has nowhere to turn for sanctuary. It is this ruthless power, that is the film’s Leviathan.
Conquered territory Leviathan’s sequences that depict natural landscapes around the town are a memorable aspect of the film. The sequences work to bookmark the beginning and end, and bear witness to the natural beauty of the Northern Russian coast. Henri Lefebvre writes that place “needs to be understood as both topographical and conceptual” (296) and this idea is especially relevant in Leviathan considering the attention given to the natural landscape. The North of Russia and the Arctic sea are symbolic within Russian historical and literary discourses. As John McCannon explains, during Stalin’s dictatorship Arctic explorations were used in propaganda campaigns to affirm Soviet ideology. Arctic “victories” testified that the Russian nation could win the “war with the elements” and conquer the most inhospitable regions of the country (81). Otto Boele names such reporting as: “the Russification of the north… a spatial-ideological point of reference for Russia’s national self-image” (13). In contrast to the topos surrounding the Southern Caucasus area of the country for example, where the region is conceptualised as exotic, wild, barbaric and “Other”, the North is assimilated into Russian identity as conquered space. Emma Widdis contributes to this field of study, arguing that narratives in Russian history and literature affect how Russians relate to space in the country. She writes “this history of conquest constructs a particular relationship with territory – its nature and its people […] In representations of the territory, we can trace an attitude that might be described as the desire to conquer, or to tame, the natural world” (Widdis 38).
Considered in this discursive context, the Northern town where Leviathan is set can be understood as a place that signifies conquered territory. As Geir Hønneland has reported, when in 2010 the then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed an agreement with Norway to partition a disputed area of the Barents Sea into equal halves, this decision was criticized greatly in the Duma and in the press. Hønneland argues that the narratives surrounding Northern Russia and the Arctic are precisely the reason many Russians take an uncompromising stance towards territorial negotiations in the region (111). Leviathan is a story that unfolds around the unlawful seizure of land by the authorities, where little thought is given to the personal consequences that Kolya and his family suffers as a result. This combined with analysis of the film’s use of landscape and an understanding of the symbolism assigned to the North in Russian historical and literary narratives is where an eco-critical subtext can be found.
The film’s opening sequence consists of a number of wide-angle shots that capture areas of the coastline. It is twilight, and the dark blue ocean, heard diegetically over the musical soundtrack beats against the rocky shore. Untouched, natural landscape is seen with not one human figure in sight. Gradually human elements are incorporated into the landscape shots: electricity pylons, the shells of ruined boats and Kolya’s house, which stands next to a bridge that crosses the harbor. At the film’s closure, the sequence is somewhat repeated, only backwards, starting with the newly built church that has replaced Kolya’s home, the 4×4 cars travelling across the bridge and the abandoned ruins of boats are seen again. The film ends as it begins with wide-angle shots of the expansive sea and rocky coastline. The sea beats against the rocks but this time a single red oil canister joins the waves. These sequences are highly atmospheric, capturing the awe of the enormity of the ocean and the stillness of a rural, remote town.
These sequences do not directly affect the film’s narrative. Rather they stand on their own at the beginning and end of the story. Martin Lefebvre has theorized that capturing landscape in film signifies that setting has been moved from the margin — where it works as a function of the narrative — to the centre, where it is isolated as a “distinct aesthetic object” (23). Though the coastline is seen throughout the film, the opening and ending sequences differ in tone. For example in the scene where Lilya looks into the ocean and sees the whale, the sea is seen from her point of view and therefore works to encapsulate her feelings of powerlessness. The opening and end sequences are not seen through character’s eyes, and as Martin Lefebvre writes these sequences are “space freed from eventhood” (22). The sequences give the viewer time to contemplate the landscape and the beauty of nature. Removed from the narrative, the landscapes are freed from their role as setting, and therefore become detached from narratives of history or anthropomorphized associations.
Literary eco-critic Cheryll Glotfelty asks: “How do our metaphors of the land influence the way we treat it?” (xix). As touched upon above, in Soviet narratives, the enormous elemental power of the Arctic was understood as conquered and tamed by heroic Soviet explorers, which, as Geir Hønneland has argued, is a belief that persists into the present. Technological and scientific progress has meant that places once feared have become familiar and are considered domesticated territory, meaning pillaging the land and exploiting it for its lucrative resources can be undertaken with ease. Yet, suspended in time, the visions of the landscapes in Leviathan hold more gravity, and from here one can contemplate how devastating serious environmental damage would be if inflicted upon such beautiful natural space. The decaying boats left to rot on the shore and the skeleton of the whale washed up on the beach suggest that despite the vastness of the Arctic sea, is not immune from ruin and destruction. The red of the oil canister in the final shot is a potent image, set off by the darkness of the rocks as it crashes up against them, summoning thoughts of oil spillages in the Arctic seas that kill and endanger marine wildlife, or perhaps the Soviet Union’s environmental irresponsibility, where stockpiles of radioactive waste from the Northern fleet and civilian ice-breakers were dumped in the waters of the Barents and Kara seas (Hønneland 2).
Whether the filmmakers intended to create an eco-critical subtext has not been discussed with the same vigor as the film’s critique of the Russian political system and church. However, these two interpretations of the film can be understood as interrelated. As Sakwa reports, Putin’s desire for economic development saw the country’s natural resources ruthlessly exploited with no thought given to environmental sustainability: “Putin’s post-Sovietism was imbued with a neo-Soviet approach that regarded nature no more as the field for human exploitation, irrespective of the consequences” (204).
The film’s key narrative thread is a fight for ownership of land where lives are destroyed as a consequence. This, combined with meditative landscape shots of the Kola Peninsula, can be read as a comment upon environmental damage at the hands of human authority where land is considered the property of organizations and states. In Leviathan Kolya and his family are exploited by the corrupt authorities because of Vadim’s desire to expand the town, granting him respect from his superiors. The setting reflects this, as it is symbolic of the imperialist narratives within Russian history that have sought to triumph over and own the Northern Arctic. The landscapes depict the awe of the Arctic nature, which continues to suffer at the hands of human interference due to such narratives that claim national and political ownership over natural spaces. The whale skeleton on the shore in the final moments of the film symbolizes that the biblical Leviathan, which once represented the unknown, almighty power of God and the natural world, has been usurped. In the end the reigning sea monster is that of the machine bulldozer, destroying Kolya’s hand built home upon the orders of politicians. Leviathan challenges key ideals that Putin’s presidency initially claimed to stand for, such as Orthodox moral values, respect for the law and political transparency, and instead presents a country cursed by autocracy, in which political authority continues to surpass God and natural order, ruling Russia as an absolute maleficent force.
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Written by Maria Cristina Garcia (2016); edited by Jeremy Hicks (2016), Queen Mary, University of London
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