The first shot we see in Alexander Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is of surf crashing against desolate cliffs in northern Russia. Were it not for the rich hues of blue, it could almost be mistaken for the opening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Indeed, Leviathan, as damning an indictment of Putin’s Russia as anything so far put to film, could rival the most morose Bergman in its bleakness.
The plot of the Russian Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film revolves around Nikolai (nicknamed Kolya), a mechanic fighting a doomed fight against the state seizure of his home and property by a corrupt local mayor, who, he believes, plans to build an opulent summer house for himself on the site. The mayor, played by Roman Madyanov in a powerfully menacing performance, is a perfect embodiment of the top-down Putinist concept of “power vertical”: He has the police and judiciary in his pocket, he’s supported by a corrupt and hypocritical bishop from the Russian Orthodox Church, and he puts his own will and desires above all others’ “rights.” At one point, the mayor and his muscle show up outside Kolya’s house to flaunt his impending land grab, and he drunkenly yells at the protagonist, “You are just an insect! You have never, you don’t have, and you never will have ‘rights’!”
Dialogue like this is part of what makes Leviathan a film as relevant as it is powerful; it’s an unblinking look at the culture of “legal nihilism” that former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev once said his country needed to overcome (and then did nothing to address during his term in office). In the film’s courtroom scenes, Kolya can do nothing but sit as a bystander at his own trial as he listens to a judge dismiss his claims against the seizure in a soulless Kafkaesque legalese read at a comically fast pace.
The specter of Putin haunts Leviathan. While he’s never explicitly referenced in the dialogue, his official portrait stares down at the mayor as he conspires against Kolya in his government office. At one point, a reference to the jailed anti-Putin rock group Pussy Riot can be heard in a TV news program playing in the background. In a much-discussed scene, Kolya and some friends drunkenly shoot up posters of past Soviet leaders — including Lenin and Gorbachev — while on a picnic outing. When one friend asks another if he has any posters of more-recent leaders, he responds, “It’s too early for the current ones.”
And then there are the visuals. Amid the natural beauty of the northern arctic landscape, Zvyagintsev’s camera lingers on deserted churches, dilapidated buildings, and other abandoned and rotting infrastructure typical of so many provincial towns and villages in a Russia where almost all new capital — human and otherwise — goes straight to Moscow.
In its native country, Leviathan has been met with predictable criticism from church and state alike. (The culture minister is on record saying he didn’t like the film — though the government did help finance its production.) Still, it’s nevertheless managed to secure a wide release in Russia, albeit in a version censored to comply with the country’s 2014 law banning swear words in television and most film. Director Zvyagintsev has gone back and forth on how explicit the film’s political message is. At times he has seemed at pains to distance the film from a specific critique of Putin, noting that the idea for it was initially inspired by a Colorado man’s 2004 rampage following a zoning dispute with his local municipality. And yet Zvyagintsev has also opened up on occasion, telling the Guardian recently that “we [in Russia] live in a feudal system when [sic] everything is in the hands of one person, and everyone else is in a vertical of subordination.”
What makes Leviathan a truly great film, however, is that it transcends its contemporary political critique to ask timeless questions — its title references not only Hobbes but the Bible. At one point, as it sinks in to Kolya that he is losing everything he holds dear, he confronts a local priest with a question: “Where is your merciful God?” The priest responds by quoting from God’s response to Job about why he suffered the fate he did: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook? Or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put a hook into his nose? Or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make many supplications unto thee? Will he speak soft words unto thee?” Job in the end is comforted by God’s answering his question with a barrage of even more questions, and G. K. Chesterton took the lesson of the book to be that “the riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” Kolya, however, doesn’t seem to have read Chesterton, and suffice it to say he takes no comfort in the fate that awaits him. (I don’t consider it a spoiler to note that a Russian film ends pessimistically.)
So will Leviathan take home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film? There is a general critical consensus that it’s this year’s favorite, having no serious competition aside from Poland’s Ida. Still, anything could happen. The Oscars’ ratings may have been steadily declining for years, but in the Kremlin, they’ll have never been higher.