By Marshall Shaffer
In the past few years, both the Coen Brothers in “A Serious Man” and Terence Malick in “The Tree of Life” have explored the perpetually head-scratcher of a Biblical story that is Job. The perceived human disparity between is and ought as well as the unfathomable question of why bad things happen to seemingly good people is always relevant. These American directors, to varying degrees of success, managed to pose the questions raised by Job without explicitly mentioning it to the audience.
Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev displays no such reticence in his film “Leviathan.” His central character Kolya, a provincial man facing a potentially unlawful government seizure of his coastal property, is explicitly told within the film itself to reconsider his woes in light of Job’s struggles. The complete lack of subtlety denies some of the joys of discovery for the viewer, yet it does little to detract from this astute depiction of contemporary Russia.
Zvyagintsev sets his sights big with a clear allegory for the state of the nation. The plain, unassuming Kolya is the Russian everyman whose home and town already appear to be in a state of disrepair. His nemesis is a corrupt civil servant, the mayor Vadim, who wishes to have the property for a “communications center.”
As if his position alone did not indicate a reference to Russia’s president, the swaggering, oafish bully is a visible Putin acolyte. A picture of the country’s leader hangs in his office, and Vadim has, whether consciously or subconsciously, even modeled his hairstyle after Putin. The deck seems stacked against Kolya from the very beginning as Vadim has enormous power to wield and support from the Russian religious establishment.
“Leviathan” makes quite the condemnation of these large societal forces and their perverse collusion, but Zvyagintsev never loses sight of the human collateral damage taken by the conjoined church-state beast. While the first portion of the film is rather heavy on dialogue and plot development, the concluding sections are more ambient and brooding. Everyday torments shine a powerful light on existential tussles, a powerful connection that resonates tremendously.
“Leviathan” opens Friday at a/perture Cinema downtown. Find showtimes and tickets HERE.
Marshall Shaffer is a senior at Wake Forest University specializing in film and media studies. He has been writing film reviews and other cinematic commentary on his blog Marshall and the Movies since 2009, and his work has also been syndicated on The Christian Science-Monitor. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs. You can read more of his reviews HERE. You can hear Marshall’s new podcast HERE.