Leviathan is the tale of a man named Kolya (played by Alexei Serebriakov). Kolya lives a hard life in the far north of Russia, in a small village on the coast of the Arctic Sea. He lives with his son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and his second wife Lilia (Elena Lyadova). He makes a living repairing cars, especially those of the corrupt local police. But his simple life is threatened when the local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), attempts to unjustly evict Kolya from his family’s land. Kolya brings in an old army buddy and now lawyer named Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to fight the mayor in the courts, but it’s an uphill battle; Vadim has the judges, the police, and every government employee neatly in his pocket. As the story plays out, Kolya discovers that the corruption within the government is only part of this dark and sinister tale.
The first act of Leviathan focuses on the corruption surrounding the characters, that of the external world of politics, laws, and authority. Zvyagintsev paints a damning picture of modern Russia in the form of Vadim, who is not only unjust but petty, cruel, and an alcoholic. He uses every dirty trick and legal loophole to try to evict Kolya, and threatens, coerces, and blackmails anyone who gets in his way. He is a man intoxicated with power and surrounded by the sickly sweet smell of corruption. This first aspect of the film most clearly resembles a political drama, or maybe more accurately a crime drama. But here, the criminal is the one responsible for representing those he’s exploiting. Although the film takes aim (sometimes quite literally) at Russian politics and society, you don’t have to stretch your imagination far to imagine the same things happening in any society.
But the second half of Leviathan shifts. Where the first half is about governmental and societal corruption, the second section looks inward and details corruption of a much more personal sort. The moral decay and abuse perpetrated by police and judges on the outside is darkly mirrored by the rot and degeneration within each individual soul. It’s a subtle and quiet sort of decay, where each person slowly falls apart and is helped by no one. While the first act of Leviathan is despicable, the second half becomes simply horrible, as these people we have been rooting for fall to temptation, sin, and despair.
Leviathan is one of the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and rightly so. A masterpiece of writing and acting, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s twisted tale of a crumbling society is terrifyingly real. In fact, it’s so real that the Russian Ministry of Culture has now put forward rules that would ban movies which “defile the national culture” such as Leviathan. It may be that his film, an incriminating portrait of corruption and abuse, hit too close to home in the political aspect. But in its painting of that same nasty and brutish human nature Thomas Hobbes was so afraid of, there is no doubt that everyone will see some facet of themselves, their loved ones, and their society in Zvyagintsev’s dark mirror.