Leviathan Dir. Andrey Zgyagintsev

[Sony Pictures Classics/Non-Stop; 2014]

Styles: drama
Others: Network, Elena, Days of Heaven, The Grapes of Wrath, Timbuktu

In reading The Book of Job, Verse 41, I was struck by a word: potsherds. Besides the fact that the pronunciation bot seems a bit giddy about saying the word, it occurred to me that its use in the description of the indestructible underside of the allegorical beast which leaves “a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge” is at odds with the word’s definition. Likely the author was attracted to a pottery fragment’s durability across generations, but it’s still just a hunk of earthenware. Just as one can’t write anything without attempting confection, it seems the prophets could not testify about our doom without making it sensual (a word which, incidentally, has “spiritual” as one of its antonyms). Many might call Leviathan a disengaged film. But it is more rigorous than restrained in the end. It is trying to show the ways in which subjugation and self-degradation are magnetizing without engaging in the aesthetic pull. It’s a difficult thing, so Andrey Zgyagintsev has presented us with a demanding viewing experience.

Empathy is essential. But keeping it at bay is a rare enough practice that it should be refreshing in terms of expanding the experience of cinematic storytelling. Everything frustratingly ambiguous about Leviathan is also what makes it so vital. The acts of violence or carnality that we don’t see, or even fully grasp the truth of, are not teasingly out of frame, as in a Haneke film. Instead, they are properly rooted in the reality of sublimation and more succinctly denied their lurid, rubberneck appeal. Roman Madyanov’s performance as the titular behemoth is the most splashy aspect of the film. He is practically a bond villain, with his rough coterie of henchmen that he chews out for not covering his bulbous ass. But his blase vulgarity is thematically alleviated by its child-like capitulation with the Russian Orthodox Church. This rough beast has a leash on him called the will of almighty God, and surely his powers that be contend that these dalliances with strange bedfellows all come out in the wash.

Fundamentalism is a friend of the empowered. The disenfranchised characters that we, as movie-goers, innately strive to feel for in this story are all ultimately grist for damnation. Patriarch Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a sullen, violent drunk. His all-suffering wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), is too eager to please everyone to do what’s right for her own well-being. Her husband’s teenage son from a previous marriage is mercilessly cruel to her (and presumably too full of teen angst to let any remorse in). Kolya’s attorney brother Dmitriy hides his competitive nature behind a (usually booze reinforced) wall of sentimentality and familial duty. No one gets off remotely easy. Lilya comes close, but remains something of a mystery. By the relatively rough, less attractive quality of many of the other women in the small coastal town, it seems Zvyagintsev is framing her as a sort of angelic figure brought low by her own humility. Why he does this I don’t know. It’s almost as senselessly punitive as what Von Trier put Emily Watson’s character through in Breaking The Waves. While no one is given much of an interior life in this film, the events surrounding her are the most vague. Yet there are scenes with her that say a lot, if only by looking at her face on a bus among hardened, yet bone-weary passengers. In the films minor, more passive moments, Lilya shines brightest.

Of course, much of the film’s vagueness had to have been by necessity. Thirty-five percent of its budget was provided by the Russian government, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Leviathan is very open to interpretation. It is a categorically tragic film, unlike the confounding event that inspired it, but it could also be easily re-shaped into a cautionary tale about standing in the way of fate with nothing but a bottle of vodka for defense. Kolya’s defiance could just as easily be read as defeatism, as his brother suggests. However, when faced with no answer for the feelings of hurt and pity that the film can inspire, this still takes on a powerful resonance:

“The world today is constantly changing its reference points. True values are being replaced with false ones. But even in this world, our path remains unchanged: It leads to Christ.”

Christ’s expression in this portrait is stern and partly there to help galvanize the hypocritically relativistic generality of the sermon read in front of it as irrefutable universality. But in close-up it appears undermining. Christ’s rage seems plain: Those who would use idolatry, ritual and the law of the land to subjugate his fellow man are sacrilege and deserving of my father’s wrath. But it’s barely a second of a two and a half-hour film, and people will see what they want to see. Leviathan’s reservedness and slow, deliberate consideration of landscape is uniquely opaque. There is nothing overtly alluring or exploitative about it. You could almost miss a scene of frontal nudity, it is so matter of fact. However, there is Philip Glass music at the beginning and end, which seems filmically inextricable from the non-linear onslaught of Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. It is music of both urgency and stasis, framing the film’s events with a collective, corporeal noise called overwhelm: the short-circuiting between consciousness and its opposite. We recognize the feeling. Meanwhile, the Leviathan smiles. The Leviathan laughs. The Leviathan lets you make your little movie.

There is much written about independent films working with, or making the most of, their limitations. Leviathan is, so far, the most striking example I’ve yet to see of this. Only it isn’t through homespun effects or minimalism, but defiant self-expression in a country where this is particularly suppressed. It is a striking work with unforgettable faces and settings that somehow escapes being an obvious come-on. It is sour and unsentimental on the surface, but also giving to the attentive viewer. One need only recall Brazil to find humor in the rapid fire bureaucracy-droning of the courtroom scenes. And the drinking and haphazard carrying-on is as bracingly awkward as a scene from a Cassevetes film. There is an initial tendency to look at Kolya’s pain-in-the-ass neighbor Yulya as menacing, but he reveals himself to be merely lonely. And Kolya is never fully vilified or martyred. He is just a man, flawed and prone to corruption like the rest. The point is that Leviathan, despite coming from a land that systematically chokes out much art that isn’t propagandistic, is as good or better than the groundbreaking work of comparatively free nations. It is a furtive, yet resolute step in the right direction — a loosened potsherd on the belly of the beast.

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