Leviathan: An Incisive Take on Russia Even Putin Couldn't Ignore

The country's entry for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars is a rare example of a director's prestige prevailing over a fiercely controlling propaganda machine.

Sony Pictures Classics

Can critical acclaim conquer censorship? If there were ever an argument in favor of the idea, it would be in the story of Leviathan. Its director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, has brought movies to the Cannes, Venice, and Telluride Film Festivals, and been described as the most famous Russian filmmaker working today. His penchant for producing films critical of his native country's society, however, has worked against him, particularly in 2011, when his searing class-injustice documentary Elena was passed over by the Oscar selection committee.

Zvyagintsev speculates that with Leviathan, Putin's administration finally decided his films couldn't be ignored. How else to account for the decision made by the country's cultural ministry, under anonymous vote, to fund over a third of Leviathan? Or select it as this year's Oscar submission under a committee headed by Putin supporter Nikita Mikhalkov? For sure, the current culture minister isn't happy about the movie's "anti-Russian" message. Yet he praised the film's Golden Globe win, taking the chance to elaborate on Russia's grand artistic tradition.

If the plaudits set the bar a bit high, Leviathan ably rises to meet the extra scrutiny. The film can't necessarily be separated from the controversy accompanying it in its home country, where it'll be released on February 5 but is already being heavily pirated. Nor can it shed the inevitable "important movie" buzz that will precede its moment at the Oscars. But as a sweeping critique of government that peers far beyond Russia's borders, the movie works on its own terms. Its greatest coup, aside from receiving some support from the country it's mocking, is the film's ability to resolve its central tragedy—the disintegration of a single Russian family—with sharp political comedy.

For a movie that's primarily about the municipal zoning troubles of a single car mechanic, Leviathan begins, somewhat surprisingly, with the cinematic gusto of an epic. Set on the coast of the Barents Sea, the camera shows waves crashing into the region's desolate cliffs, lingers on the bones of beached whales, and finally settles on a single house overlooking this very grand, desolate scene. If the prelude appears a touch grand, the plot justifies its languor swiftly thereafter: The property is the bone of contention between one hard-drinking handyman Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov)—who lives there with his second wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and child, Romka—and the corrupt mayor of the town, Mer (Roman Madyanov), who wants to seize the spot for public-private use. Kolya, a stubborn spitfire who claims to have built the house with his bare hands, seeks the help of his lawyer pal Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who's recently arrived from Moscow. Dima, armed with good-natured confidence in the functional operation of Russian law but also a file of damning information about Mer in case the former fails him, fills Kolya with a fleeting, ultimately misplaced sense of hope.

Several fruitless visits to the court, the prosecutor, and judge later, Kolya and his friend begin to come to terms with the systemic corruption blocking their progress. During the day the town's various crooked administrators ignore them, except to imprison Kolya when, in a moment of weakness, he flares up against another blank-faced bureaucrat. At night Mer drunkenly attempts to strong-arm Kolya into subservience with a gang of muscle-strapped goons by his side and a barrage of slurred threats. "Don't you recognize authority when you see it?" he says, eyes rolling, before he calls Kolya and his family a bunch of "insects."

This offhand insult, however hyperbolic, resonates throughout the film, which often frames its working-class subjects through panes of glass, as if they were specimens in cases. These images at once remind the viewer of Kolya and his family's helplessness in their position at the very bottom of a rigidly hierarchical society, and indicate the strange fear Mer harbors of the very citizens who vote for him. It's a worry he relates quite often to his pal the Orthodox bishop, who feeds him lines about God justifying his power, as well as sumptuous meals at his table by a tapestry of The Last Supper.

Kolya's one-man quest to take on the institutional injustices of Russian society inevitably, awfully, turns sour: The plot, after all, was inspired by the story of Marvin Heemeyer, a muffler-shop owner from Colorado who piloted a bulldozer into seven buildings in his hometown in 2004 after his own zoning dispute. But for all its unrelenting bleakness, the movie chases its realist misery with a healthy helping of black comedy. The satire ranges in tone from loving mockery (two sweet, corrupt traffic cops; one clueless priest) to outright farce, the best moment of all being when one of Kolya's friends and clients, the police chief, suggests livening up a shooting party by firing at framed portraits of Russian officials. "Man is the most dangerous animal," the chief says wickedly, because like all the characters poor and powerful in this movie, he's just imbibed a bit too much vodka.

If all the officials in this movie are caricatures, their portrayals offset the experience of the family at its center, whose members are excruciatingly fully-formed. It's both a relief and even more heartbreaking that, as the constants in Kolya’s life fall away like dominoes, the film jumps between perspectives to inhabit the minds of his wife and child. From their objective views, Kolya’s steadfast righteousness can look like selfishness. His new wife’s wish to start over is dashed by her husband’s anti-establishment crusade; Romka’s memory of his father is tainted when he turns to vodka to soothe the inexplicable injustices. The emotional toll taken by rebellion, so often culturally venerated in our entertainment, is never sugar-coated; the terrible consequences of present, socially acceptable oppression, are realized.

The fallout riffs on the Book of Job, an Old Testament story about a man who resigned himself to his fate and lived to be old and wise. Kolya, who refuses to accept what he’s being offered, falls on the wrong side of the parable. But make no mistake, his is not a cautionary tale—Leviathan offers a wry version of the tragedy that occurs when normal people challenge entrenched hierarchies. Happily, in the case of this movie, the snuffed, dissenting voices are all fictional, but Zvyagintsev's story resonates in a world all too aware of the ramifications of speaking truth to power.