The official response among politicians and the arts establishment to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s bleak film about power and despair in today’s Russia has been all over the map. Leviathan — which was funded in part by the Culture Ministry and was the nation’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards — has been praised for its beauty and technical achievement, but dismissed as anti-Russia propaganda to encourage western elites to look down on Russians. Critics defensively insist it could take place anywhere on earth, but certainly doesn’t resemble any Russia they know.
To those who are making out fine — for now — in Putin’s Russia the film doesn’t look like their reality. The petty indignities and grand larcenies it traces are for ordinary people — Russia looks much different through the tinted rear windows of your Mercedes as you are driven from your gated high-rise penthouse to the VIP lounge at Sheremetyevo Airport to await your first-class flight to London or New York or Dubai. Choosing not to see is an important prerogative of the ruling class, even though they are no more immune from the tragedy that results whenever anyone gets ideas about where in the social hierarchy they belong.
That is one of the timeless and present themes in Leviathan, which won this year’s Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. It is a Biblical story that takes on new meaning in light of the political situation in Russia, as the crisis in Ukraine unfolds and the economy staggers in the face of tightening sanctions and increasing international isolation.
The movie is about Kolya, a kind of scruffy, plain-spoken, not particularly thoughtful man’s man that has become a kind of Russian gender ideal. Kolya has carved out a comfortable place in a little corner of the hypnotically stark Arctic reaches of Russia, and as the movie begins he has a pleasant house (nothing like the cramped apartments in grim concrete housing blocks where most Russians live), a pretty young wife, and a son whose coming-of-age struggles don’t seem too alarming. Kolya is a mechanic, which has enabled him to craft a friendly peace even with the local traffic police, the much-hated, bribe-hungry face of arbitrary state power that makes life miserable for most Russians. In the social economy of favors and keeping your head down, Kolya has done everything that is expected of him.
Except, as we learn early on, that the city government has taken a sudden and urgent interest in his property. The battle is already well along, and by refusing to meekly accept an obvious injustice, Kolya has roused the ire of a gigantic, mysterious, sprawling monster that is already relentlessly bearing down on him. It is an easy guess for anyone with a passing familiarity with the Old Testament to imagine how it is going to end.
Along the path of Kolya’s hopeless struggle he encounters a roster of familiar characters in today’s Russia. The loud, drunken local mayor who would be a buffoon if he wasn’t so malevolent and had such immediate access to the levers of power. There are the faceless police who do their duty without reflecting on what that duty is, there is a byzantine court system with magistrates that rattle off life and death decisions in a deluge of jargon, and the track-suited hired goons that appear from the shadows when extra-legal means are necessary. And in a particularly chilling twist, behind the scenes is a priest who whispers encouragement in the mayor’s ear whenever his conscience catches up with him (the Orthodox Church in Russia has become once again a subordinate branch of government, a spiritual KGB).
It is Zvyagintsev’s great skill to populate his stark world with careful observations about life in Russia. One scene that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time there comes when Kolya’s lawyer, an old friend from Moscow who is trying to find a way to resolve the situation, goes to a court office and meets an angrily unhelpful secretary. I’ve walked into similar scenes many times when I lived in Moscow as any interaction with bureaucracy — at the police station to register your visa, at an airline ticket office, at the post office — involves talking to frustrated people who not only won’t help you but seem to enjoy telling you that you are already beyond help.
Zvyagintsev also captures the feeling of intimacy and vague danger that often hangs over the simplest things. What it is like to lean over a table with a bottle of vodka under a bare lightbulb with friends to talk very deeply about big things. Or that overwhelming sense of how giant the sky and the land is, and that all that space is ready to swallow you up.
The movie is not so much about post-Soviet Russia, but about its return to a dark, feudal social order. Contemporary politics appear here and there — it is hard not to read the lawyer as representing a certain kind of opposition figure like Alexei Navalny who hopes to use the system’s own laws and logic against it. But the movie firmly rejects the specificity of the moment — at one point Kolya and his friends use a series of official portraits of former heads of state for target practice, making a dark point about about the eternal presence of absolute authority.
The idea of struggling to understand remote and threatening power is one Zvyagintsev has explored before, in a much more intimate way. His breakthrough film, The Return (Amazon) is about two brothers who are hauled off on a fishing trip with their father, who had vanished from their lives only to return under mysterious circumstances. Like Leviathan, the film is a self-aware fable set in the bleak beauty of rural Russia, woven through with heavy-handed symbolic themes. Both films are unsettling, neither has any easy answers.
By relying on these kinds of timeless quest narratives and Bible stories, Zvyagintsev seems to provoke you into thinking harder about what they mean for you. When I was a kid going to parochial school, I spent a lot time wrestling with the unsatisfactory answers we were taught about some of the great Bible stories. Why is it incorrect to take the obvious lesson from the Book of Job, that the merciless breaking of an honest man to prove a point about power undermines the entire idea of omnipotence? Or that the story of Abraham and Isaac is proof we should be thankful that we now understand schizophrenia, and whose only real moral question, at least since I became a parent, is at what point do you take your chances with the alternative? I’m glad to think I live in a part of the world where you can hold your nose and walk away.
But you can’t in a lot of places. Leviathan uses these stories to explain to Westerners a political landscape we can’t really understand just by reading about the details of Putin’s increasingly tight grasp of power. This occurred to me a few months ago, when we watched the first few Hunger Games movies on Netflix — that we Americans have a charming inability to understand how authoritarian society works. We’ve lived so long with the idea of “rule of law” and “human rights” we can’t believe the kind of illogic and cruelty that has been most of human history.
The grim truth is that most bad regimes don’t have a pure-hearted majority sorrowfully waiting to be roused to action. Most people don’t want to be heroes, and are content to float along with whatever reality the powerful fringe creates for them. And for the powerful, being at the top is not about wearing fancier clothes and getting to boss people around. It is about the obsessive need to placate those just one step just above you. And the higher you go, the more you fear what happens if things get knocked over.
That was the subtext of what I think is among the best recent Russian films: Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 (Amazon), which is about as squalid a look at the end of the Soviet Union as you could imagine (it also happened to star Aleksei Serebryakov, who played Kolya in Leviathan). Before his premature death in 2013, Balabanov had emerged as an important post-Soviet director, specializing in crowd-pleasing, lurid action flicks that captured the chaos, xenophobia, and violence of the 1990s. Cargo 200 tried to show that rough time had deeper roots.
In the movie, which was shot like a low-budget 80s slasher film, a sadistic police captain in a rough industrial town kidnaps and tortures in a young woman who clings to the hope that her boyfriend, a paratrooper fighting in Afghanistan, will return to save her. As the characters wander through the film from one disaster to the next, it reaches a climax so disturbing it almost zooms straight to absurd hilarity, complete with a chilling final joke about just what kind of person thrives in times like these. It is a very different picture of the era just before glasnost and perestroika — seeing it not as the birth pangs of hope and freedom, but the inevitable horror of a society rotting from the inside out before it tore itself apart. That, sadly, is not a new theme in Russian history.
Many Russians who lived through the 1980s would protest that Balabanov’s vision didn’t look like any Russia they knew. But these parables fit a great Russian tradition of speaking through extremes about realities we’d rather not see. These movies are no more about a specific time and place than Crime and Punishment was about criminal trends in the 1880s. We should be grateful for the honesty.