“A story of love and tragedy experienced by ordinary people” is how Alexander Rodnyansky, producer of the Oscar-nominated Leviathan, describes this Job-like tale of one man’s plight to save his home from being seized by the authorities. Set in Russia’s far north on the Kola peninsula – its scale magnificently depicted by Zvyagintsev’s use of wide-angled panoramas – Kolya, a local mechanic, faces losing everything to the town’s corrupt mayor, Vadim, a caricature of capitalist greed and avarice. Feeling deserted by the state, Kolya takes justice into his own hands placing him unwittingly at the dangerous epicentre of competing political realities.  

As with Zvyagintsev’s previous films The Banishment, Elena and The Return, Leviathan’s central concern is social, rooted in a contemporary Russia where the personal and the political seem increasingly hard to disentangle. The Russia he depicts is one that is booze-and money-obsessed and the pillars of the state – the courts and the church – appear more as hollow, ceremonial organs than protective institutions. But while Leviathan is an unmistakably Russian film, Zvyagintsev cites his inspirations as an American news story about a muffler-shop owner involved in a zoning dispute and Heinrich von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas. Corruption and avarice are not national, but universal, human traits, Zvyagintsev suggests. “The ideas at the heart of it are relevant everywhere,” said Zvyagintsev in an interview. “But of course it’s a film about Russia. It’s a very Russian film.” 



As well as echoes with the Book of Job through its questions of human suffering, Leviathan recalls Hobbes’ influential 17th-century text with which it shares its name. Written during the English Civil War it is one of Britain’s earliest examples of social contract theory, in which Hobbes argues that rule by an absolute sovereign is the surest way to avoid all-out war. In Zvyagintsev’s film, another leviathan in the form of a whale’s skeleton appears washed up on the beach by Kolya’s house, both a symbol of personal emptiness and despair and perhaps, a nod to a broken social contract that has been left to rot.

Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 2014, Leviathan is nearly always discussed in regard to its political context, not least for its unique status as a state-funded film critical of the state. What many miss – or fail to comment on – is its unmistakable artistry: the inundating vistas, the pitch-perfect performances, the mesmeric rhythms of Phillips Glass’ opera Akhnaten – the perfect hangover cure to the film’s inebriating effects.

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