‘Leviathan’ Review

Putin’s Russia comes under the microscope

Illustration by Gary Locke

"The best one-liner in Leviathan comes in the opening credits," the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane noted in his review of the Russian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. "Reportedly, as much as 35 percent of the budget was supplied by government funding. This is like Kazakhstan using oil revenues to pay for Borat."

The expenditure has caused something of an uproar. The Guardian reports that Russia is making it more difficult to exhibit films that are "defiling the national culture, posing a threat to national unity, and undermining the foundations of the constitutional order."

It’s not terribly surprising that a nation headed by a former KGB officer is cracking down on freedom of expression following the runaway critical success of a film that delivers body blow after body blow to the Russian "constitutional order." Leviathan is half-anti-bureaucratic farce, half-classic-Russian-tragedy, equally interested in the drab lives of its vodka-besotted subjects and in the political commingling of the state, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the oligarchy.

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Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) and Lilya (Elena Lyadova) live by the sea with Kolya’s son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). Adding stress to their family drama—stepmother vs. stepson, with an alcoholic husband/father trying to play mediator—is the fact that the town’s mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), has used the power of the state to take their home, which he plans on bulldozing and turning into a media center or, possibly, a palace. It’s hard to say which is more likely.

It’s hard to say because corruption is simply accepted as the way of doing business in Leviathan’s Russia. We are told that police officers shake motorists down for so many bribes that they can buy a home in their first five years on the job. And we see the banality of this corruption when the head of the motorist police uses his position to browbeat Kolya into fixing his car for free.

These petty shakedowns are nothing compared with the crimes of Vadim, which have been documented by Kolya’s friend and former army buddy Dmitry (Vladimir Vdovichenkov). The soldier-turned-lawyer hopes to use the file to blackmail the mayor into letting Kolya keep his home. Or, at the very least, to earn a fair recompense from the state for confiscating it.

The first half of the film deals with the depredations of life in a corrupt state. It’s no wonder that the Russian government is feeling angst: a portrait of Putin himself, sporting a look of beatific contentment and blessing the state’s abuse of its powers, looms over Vadim’s council of corruption. Portraits play a key role later on, when Kolya and his friends go on a weekend shooting trip and use head shots of old Soviet Premiers for target practice.

The domestic tragedy that encompasses the film’s second half—the formation and shattering of a love triangle of sorts—doesn’t resonate quite as strongly as the first half, in part because it’s not as caustically funny. This is a tale of vodka-fueled dysfunction, of the meaninglessness of a life in which fairness and freedom are little more than easily ignored words.

The Putinistas fear Leviathan and other films not because they threaten to tear apart national unity, but because they have exposed that unity as little more than a polite fiction. They have exposed the fact that Russia is governed by thugs and churchmen who rule a population literally drinking itself to death to anesthetize the pain.