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Monsters from the Sea

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

Leviafan (Левиафан), dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014

Zvyaginstev's earlier 2003 film, Vozvrashcheniye (The Return) impressed for the manner in which a mighty fable emerged from the story of an absent father who returns to try and pick up the pieces with his two abandoned sons and embarks on a road trip which becomes both a search for the meaning of father-son love and for the understanding of how nationhood is bound up in a series of elusive and mythic markers which they encounter along the way. Leviathan derides its quiet and devastating power from similar terrain: pitting man against the ravishes of an environment which is at once both starkly beautiful and forbiddingly desolate and over which a pervasive force of social decline under authoritarian corruption has become ingrained.

Like The Return, Leviathan ostensibly tells a simple tale: mechanic-handyman Koyla (Aleksei Serebryakov), his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his son Roma (Sergey Pokhodyaev) reside in a small coastal fishing/semi-industrial town in the remote northern steppes of Russia. It's one of those bleak utilitarian towns which heavily submitted to that oppressive communist aesthetic with some earlier devotion but which now bears the marks of considerable neglect and poverty. Everything is run down, decrepit, broken, dull. Those huge brutal square concrete buildings jut out from the spare beauty of the estuary on which the town is built, itself littered with the decaying wrecks of fishing boats against which waste and effulence from nearby factories washes up with a slow repetitious monotony. On a desolate stone-strewn stretch of beach there is the white-bleached skeleton of a massive whale, obviously run ashore and left to die and slowly rot; the perfect metaphor for what has happened to the town itself.

The town, meanwhile, is overseen by a crooked Mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) who seems to function as a kind of explicit Boris Yeltsin caricature: he has a habit of conducting the official business of the town snot-faced drunk and comes across at times like a pathetic buffoon too stupid to know the danger that he himself poses. He has made it his mission to surround himself with strategic cronies (the chief of police, the head judge, etc.) he can easily manipulate and cajole into subscribing to his thuggish brand of self-enrichment. In one scene, some old official portraits of former Soviet leaders are used as target practice but there is not yet one of Boris Yeltsin because, the men say, "he still needs time to be fully considered and appreciated" as if to suggest they are somewhat approving of the system of patronage and corruption he instilled and by which they now, in some way or another, both survive and suffer.

Anyway, Mayor Vadim has his eyes on Koyla's family home, a modest establishment, but perched on a particularly attractive piece of land overlooking the estuary. Vadim has pulled strings so that Koyla receives a notice to compulsory acquire the land by government decree and at the same time be paid considerably less than it's worth. The risk of losing his home haunts Koyla and makes him become morose with his wife and son, temperamental with townsfolk and stand-offish with local authorities over the dispute. The Mayor claims the town needs the land to build a massive phone mast which brazenly demonstrates the bulldozer-like attitude of officialdom towards community roots and the welfare of people. It's as if to suggest that the town is destined to become a monument to the sweep of soon-redundant technology but must sacrifice family heritage to achieve it. In turn, Koyla secretly suspects the Mayor wishes to acquire the land for his own lavish villa. To fight his cause, Koyla solicits the help of a former army friend, Dima, (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a smart-talking lawyer based in Moscow. Dima arrives in the town armed with a file of dirt he has unearthed on the Mayor's many dodgy dealings. When the court case goes against Koyla yet again and the demolition mob are poised at the Mayor's instructions to begin to destroy the home, Dima steps in and plays the card up his sleeve.

At first Vadim seems unnerved by the risk of exposure and agrees to pay what Dima demands as the true value of the property, but then a visit to a Russian Orthodox Bishop inspires him to be bolder, less afraid and more forceful. Religion plays an ironic and influential role, it seems, in helping strongmen to determine their next course of action over the rivals they are pitted against in their march towards power and control. Emboldened by the Bishop's personal sermon, Vadim consequently hits out at Dima, threatening him violently and rapidly sending him packing back to Moscow. This is not before Dima has had a spur of the moment fling with Lilya which is soon discovered by Koyla, setting off a tidal wave of reactions and responses, most of which are characteristically vague and ambiguous. Does he forgive her? Was it just a drunken escapade? Is the woman lonely and unhappy? What influence does his teenage son, who does not like Liyla one bit, have in unfolding events? Liyla is subsequently found dead on the beach but the cause of her demise is unclear. Is Koyla so betrayed by Lilya that he has struck out at her and killed her? Did she take her own life and drown herself in the sea because she could no longer bear the reality of life with Koyla and her job at the factory which involved gutting slimy stinking fish all day long? Has she realised that her one chance to flee to a better life in Moscow with Dima has been lost? Or: was there a carefully laid scheme from higher up to do away with her and plant a chain of evidence leading back to Koyla? We never know.

In rapid succession, accompanied by an ever more voluminous amount of vodka, Koyla's entire life falls apart. He too encounters an Orthodox priest who relates to him the considerable challenges God beset on the Old Testament character of Job, testing his blind faith and endurance to a plight of worldly suffering. It becomes subtly clear that the film is a parallel retelling of the story of Job, that Koyla is a man who loses everything: his home, his family, his liberty and that, just as God permitted Satan in the form of an angel to visit disaster on Job, in some way the Bishop has indirectly influenced Vadim to stop at nothing so that he becomes the agent of Koyla's entire destruction.

In Koyla's ensuing fall Vadim not only gets to have his piece of land but is shown to live so stratospherically above the common man that he is virtually untouchable. He simply goes about being this force of indomitable power, ordering his thugs onto anyone who stands in his way. That he does not face any consequences, does not fall because of his hubris, does not meet justice in any shape or form, shows how perfectly this film intends to demonstrate the reality of life in such a country where only the supremely morally corrupt and impetuous ever stand any chance of prospering. To exemplify the discrepancy between the oligarch and the common man, the town is shown to have one lone upmarket restaurant and in all this plush interior space, there is one lone diner - Vadim himself. He is literally in the process of creating a pleasure town brimming with creature comforts that only he will ever patronise and benefit from. The shot of him eating and being served alone in the empty restuarant perfectly captures the notion of the greedy politician who has no regard for the plight of common man beneath him.

Where the film succeeds superbly is not just in the playing out of this bleak dead-pan realism which portrays poverty as so endemic that every resident is seen to medicate against their depression and despair by doing nothing but knocking back copious amounts of vile-looking vodka, but it also builds up a substantial visual argument for a kind of latter-day nihilism: this is a landscape where people fail to find meaning, value or virtue in anything. The metaphor of the leviathan is used to breathtaking effect: this is no image of Satan raging forth from the waters and threatening to devour man in order to strike the fear of God into him. Instead, the visual of the rather sad skeleton of the once mighty sea creature which languishes in a heap on the beach suggests, if anything, that this is an environment where any form of divine intervention is entirely absent, where the tangible meaning and hope connected to such imagery has long been reduced to a more fatalistic pessimism. God has abandoned these people, a fact the forlorn skeleton perfectly embodies. Instead, the decent become victims of the greedy and corrupt who never seem to face their judgement day. The juxtaposition between the bony skeleton of the whale and the animated resemblance of another kind of sinister "creature" bearing down and devouring the house in the form of a huge land-digger which appears to open its mouth and clamp down on the walls (as shot from the inside) is visually striking: the old fabled whale is dead, but a new kind of ruthless leviathan has risen up in its place. The maritime metaphor is also deployed to suggest a commentary about the themes of an individual's liberty in the context of the overarching systems of state, as echoed from Hobbes's eponymous English civil-war polemic, The Leviathan.

The film plays interestingly with the idea of how the lingering remnants of religion can be harnessed to promote nefarious ends. A recurring image in the film is the ruins of an old church where the teenage boys of the town gather to drink and smoke. They have a big bonfire in the middle of where the altar might once have stood and where, in the cast of its glow, crumbling murals of old religious icons can still be gleaned once in a while. In the end, it turns out that Vadim has used the land where Koyla's house once stood to build the Bishop a new church. The concluding scene is one of the Bishop's sermon in the new building: perhaps not surprisingly, his public preaching seems diametrically opposite to the advice he gave Vadim in private. Now he extols the virtues of God's truth versus the world's truth, proclaiming that good intentions do not excuse evil acts. He preaches about not acting with force or cunning, but to put one's trust implicitly in Christ. Ironically, Vadim hears all of this but does not so much as flinch when it washes over him. Perhaps he thinks he is doing God's work after all? One begins to wonder exactly what the relationship between certain power entities in Russia really is; how old structures exist side by side and continually promote and support one another. Or whether the resurrection of the church is Zvyaginstev's way of subverting the traditional conclusion to the fable: Koyla does not appear about to be restored to his former way of life where Job was. There is no divine intervention for the common man. For real people, perhaps there is sometimes just the hard and brutal fact of a cruel and uncompromising life itself.

This is a bleak but often beautiful film which has at its heart a moral seriousness and a quite devastating sense of worldly gravity.

Bleakness and alcohol saturate the atmosphere in Leviathan. Protagonist Koyla (Aleksei Serebryakov) is on the far right.


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