Despite recently missing out on an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language category, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan still managed to garner a significant amount of press for its notoriety at home in the Russian Federation where it represented a partly government-funded project that took the liberty of seemingly biting the hand that feeds. Indeed, it tells the story of a simple man, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) thrust, by virtue of circumstance, into a collision with the might of the state personified by corpulent, corrupt mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov). Vadim covets a piece of land that is currently occupied by Kolya and his family and is intent on evicting him and demolishing his property.
Set in the beautiful environs of northern Russia on the coast around the Barents Sea, director Andrey Zvyagintsev makes the most of the breathtaking scenery with long, lingering shots of vast, unspoilt landscapes, starkly contrasted against a tale centred on moral and institutional corruption and decay. Whilst rejecting the idea that Leviathan is primarily an attack on the established Russian elite, Zvyagintsev is at pains to illustrate the idiosyncrasies of modern Russia, where power and patronage are inextricably linked. Vadim, within his own fiefdom, is a powerful man wielding the apparatus of law and order - with both the police and judiciary in his pocket - to considerable personal advantage. By contrast, Kolya's own impotence in the face of such might is accentuated by the his own meagre connections with the local traffic police.
Added to this Kolya also has problems to deal with at home attempting to maintain the balance of a happy family with his second wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), tearaway son from his first marriage. Such domestic concerns are mere trifles to Vadim who views Kolya as little more than an irritation, memorably articulated in one particular alcohol-fuelled tirade. This perspective is disrupted only when Kolya's old army buddy and Moscow lawyer Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) intervenes. Vadim rails against the lawyer's interference to the police and legal top brass, whilst making no attempt to discredit a dossier of charges laid against him, rather more concerned with how to deal with his accuser.
Vadim's concerns about his own conduct are more spiritual than criminal or legal. Whilst he vents spleen at the representatives of secular power under his direction; the diocesan bishop, Arkhierey (Valeriy Grishko) is more special advisor than soul saver, the mayor's equal partner in the ecclesiastical wing of the corrupt chain of command. Acting in the manner of political pragmatist rather than moral conscience, the bishop bolsters Vadim's wavering 'faith' by indicating that his position of power and access to privilege is proof that he is held in God's favour as long as he continues to share his good fortune with the Church. By contrast Kolya bears the mark of the devil; harassed, victimised and beset by cruel twists of fate.
Despite the dubious role of the clergy, Leviathan remains at heart a simple morality tale where the outcome is rarely in doubt. When complication and resistance do arise they are ruthlessly crushed under the wheels of progress serving vested interests and the demands of a rapacious, amoral elite. Ironically, Dima's arrival to assist with Kolya's case acts only to accelerate the disintegration of the already fractured and fractious family unit as universal human weaknesses take their toll and those around Kolya gradually betray or desert him as the day of reckoning approaches.
Consequently his own search for salvation collapses under the weight of an increasing dependence on alcohol and the lack of counsel offered him by the either the state or the church. In an exchange with the local priest Father Vasily (Igor Sergeev), an effete and compliant man, Kolya asks the fundamental question of why such misery is being visited upon him. In return he is merely offered limp platitudes focused on the story of Job (whereby the titular Leviathan is invoked) and is urged to accept the will of God. This can be viewed as a coded response for 'knowing one's place' when contrasted with Vadim's attendance at Divine Liturgy where the bishop sermonises on divine truth. Bearing in mind their previous audience Arkhierey's honeyed words would appear to carry less benevolent intent, favouring those who maintain the balance of power as the worldly arbiters of that truth, setting both the agenda and the rules of the game to their own advantage safe in the knowledge that God is on their side.
Regardless of Zvyagintsev's downplaying of domestic influences in Leviathan - he cites the real-life story of American Marvin John Heemeyer as the main inspiration - his sights are undoubtedly fixed in part on the ruling elites who continue to wield ultimate power in the Russian Federation. However, whilst a portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs prominently in the office of the corrupt Vadim (one could surmise that this is a de facto requirement in the office of any government official), he avoids any direct attacks on the current leadership by poking fun at the old Soviet guard when a series of portraits are unpacked for use as target practice by a shooting party. Perhaps most telling is the scene in which Dima produces the dossier of abuses he has compiled on Vadim. Initially the mayor seems unphased by the charges - whether they are genuine or not - and his interest is piqued only when Dima drops in the name 'Ivan Kostrov'. Vadim's reaction suggests that Dima, if his connections are genuine, has access to a more powerful and potent line of patronage than the mayor.
Clearly in the quasi-feudal world that the characters of Kolya and Vadim inhabit you are only as good as the protection that your connections offer. Similar claims have been made about contemporary Russian society where a number of politicians, businessmen and investigative journalists who have fallen out of favour with the ruling elite have suffered prosecution, incarceration and in some cases worse - the latest notable example of which occurred as recently as a few days ago at the time of writing. Whether the striking parallels that exist between contemporary political life in Russia and the fictive world of Leviathan are largely coincidental can only be answered definitively by the writer-director himself. However whilst Zvyagintsev may be addressing universal concerns possessing a broader global perspective, it is safe to say that based on the robust reaction of Russia's political elite, with notable outrage emanating from the Ministry of Culture, a chord (or possibly a nerve) has been struck.
Leviathan is presented on DVD in a ratio of 2.35:1 and represents a fine transfer by Artificial Eye that serves the feature's majestic cinematography admirably. Equally the DD5.1 soundtrack handles Philip Glass's beautiful Akhnaten with similar reverence whilst dialogue is clear and comprehensible. A stereo soundtrack is also available. Optional English subtitles are enabled by default.
Extras include a theatrical trailer (1.41); a making of documentary (28.12) which comprises behind the scenes footage of the shoot and the challenges experienced along the way including the set up for the whale carcass scene and one charming exchange where Zvyagintsev has to skilfully negotiate an additional take with one of the child actors who is more than happy with his performance on the previous take; an interview with Andrey Zvyagintsev (22:37) covering the background to the story, the Book of Job and the figure of Leviathan, happening upon Thomas Hobbes' work and the subsequent influence on the shaping of the plotline, the major themes, casting and performance, and choice of locations; and lastly, a series of deleted/alternate scenes (21.25) offering some interesting variations on certain scenes and one instance where a scene is unceremoniously halted when Elena Lyadova reverses her vehicle into a parked car.
A beautiful, compelling and ultimately tragic study of the brutality of human nature succumbing on the one hand to the excesses of privilege and greed, and on the other to hopelessness and despair, Leviathan is a formidable achievement raised to epic proportions by stunning cinematography and score. Artificial Eye deliver a fine presentation and back it up with a number of decent extras making this an easy recommendation.