Friday, January 02, 2015

171. Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film “Leviathan” (2014): A bold political film made with a superb aesthetic flourish

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.” Thomas Hobbes, in his political book on statecraft called Leviathan, published in 1651

“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it  speak to you with gentle words? Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house? Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears? If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of  it is overpowering." Book of Job, Chapter 41, 1-9 in the Holy Bible (Job is referred to as Ayub in the Holy Koran) (This quotation is recalled in part by the priest in Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan)

All the four Andrei Zvyagintsev feature films—The Return, The Banishment, Elena, and Leviathan  provide an unusual amalgam of family relationships, politics, religion, philosophy, literature, psychology, sociology,  visual metaphors  and music. Each element grips the viewer when recognized in each of the films. Each element provokes inward looking questions in the minds of the viewers. Zvyagintsev is one of the best filmmakers worldwide who consistently make awesome films for those who can appreciate serious cinema—alongside directors such as Terrence Malick (USA), Carlos Reygadas (Mexico), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey), Paolo Sorrentino (Italy), and Naomi Kawase (Japan).

Each of Zvyagintsev’s four films have deservedly won major accolades at premier film festivals (the Golden Lion at Venice for The Return; the Best Actor award at Cannes for Banishment; the Un Certain Regard section Jury prize at Cannes, Silver Peacock for Best Actress at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa,  and the Grand Prize at the Ghent International festival for Elena;  Best Screenplay award at Cannes, the Golden Peacock for Best Film and the Silver Peacock for Best Actor at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa, and the Best Film at the London Film Festival for Leviathan).

Zvyagintsev's Job is the honest Nikolai (shortened to Kolya in the film) willing
to forgive an erring wife: A Silver-Peacock-winning performance
by Alexei Serebryakov 

At a very elementary level, Leviathan is a tale of an honest man resisting the wiles of a corrupt Mayor of his coastal town to grab the land on which he and his ancestors lived. The honest man Nikolai --shortened to Kolya-- (Alexei  Serebryakov) is on the verge of losing his house when even the courts go against him.  His former friend from his Army days Dimitri—shortened to Dimi--, now a high flying lawyer practicing in Moscow, arrives with powerful connections and documents to checkmate the corrupt Mayor. The tragedy that follows is not far removed from a Biblical character called Job (or Ayub, if you are a Muslim).

When critics like me discover and point out elements of politics and theology in Zvyagitsev’s entire oeuvvre, readers are sceptical if too much is ascribed to a film beyond the obvious narrative tale. In the earlier films of Zvyagintsev, politics and theology were partly hidden behind visual and aural symbols. Many viewers of the first three Zvyagintsev films would have discounted the theological elements unless they were well read in the scriptures and acquainted with the cinema of Andrei Tarkovksy. Both the late Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky and  Andrei Zvyagintsev (the latter is in his early fifties)  are intellectuals who have good knowledge of Christian scriptures and use them to enhance the depth of their cinema.  

The title of the film Leviathan comes from two interlinked sources:  the Biblical Book of Job (Chapter 41) and Thomas Hobbes’ political book Leviathan  (published in 1651) on statecraft linking politics and religion. Unlike Zvyagintsev’s preceding three films, where religion and politics remained partly hidden, in Leviathan Zvyagintsev openly discusses both elements. There is a scene in Leviathan where wall portraits of past Russian leaders Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev are consciously used as targets for rifle shooting during a picnic and even Yeltsin is disparagingly referred in the dialogue.  (Putin is not included here, but a photograph of Putin is discretely on the wall in the Mayor's office, just as Tarkovsky added Trotsky’s photograph on the wall in a brief scene in Mirror.) Religion, too, comes to the fore in Leviathan, as the Book of Job passage is quoted by a priest in the film and the penultimate ironical sequence is a church sermon by a bishop with the villainous mayor and his family listening to it with piety.  Tarkovsky, who could never be bold to openly criticize the Russian politics, would have been delighted to see what Zvyagintsev has achieved in Leviathan. One guesses that Zvyagintsev realized that his political and religious statements through symbols used in his earlier works did not reach out to a wide audience and he had to be more explicit in Leviathan. Even the TV program shown briefly in Leviathan is discussing the Pussy Riot case. Ironically, Leviathan is Russia’s official entry to the 2015 Oscars.

It is therefore relevant to reproduce below  the director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s statement provided at the Cannes film festival for the media on his film Leviathan

“When a man feels the tight grip of anxiety in the face of need and uncertainty, when he gets overwhelmed with hazy images of the future, scared for his loved ones, and fearful of death on the prowl, what can he do except give up his freedom and free will, and hand these treasures over willingly to a trustworthy person in exchange for deceptive guarantees of security, social protection, or even of an illusory community?”
 “Thomas Hobbes’ outlook on the state is that of a philosopher on man’s deal with the devil: he sees it as a monster created by man to prevent ‘the war of all against all’, and by the understandable will to achieve security in exchange for freedom, man’s sole true possession.”
 “Just like we are all, from birth, marked by the original sin, we are all born in a ‘state’. The spiritual power of the state over man knows no limit.”
“The arduous alliance between man and the state has been a theme of life in Russia for quite a long time. But if my film is rooted in the Russian land, it is only because I feel no kinship, no genetic link with anything else. Yet I am deeply convinced that, whatever society each and everyone of us lives in, from the most developed to the most archaic, we will all be faced one day with the following alternative: either live as a slave or live as a free man. And if we naively think that there must be a kind of state power that can free us from that choice, we are seriously  mistaken. In the life of every man, there comes a time when one is faced with the system, with the “world”, and must stand up for his sense of justice, his sense of God on Earth.”
“It is still possible today to ask these questions to the audience and to find a tragic hero in our land, a ‘son of God’, a character who has been tragic from time immemorial, and this is precisely the reason why my homeland isn’t lost yet to me, or to those who have made this film.

The predicament of the character Job of the Bible is not far removed from the pile of misfortunes heaped on a good man Nikolai or Kolya in Leviathan. Zvyagintsev, like Tarkovsky, is very familiar with the Bible and weave elements from it into his films.  Nikolai in Leviathan represents the average good Russian.  

The good working class Kolya is broken like Job in the Bible from all sides
as misfortunes pile up: yet he forgives his erring wife
Co-scriptwriter Oleg Negin worked on the last three Zvyagintsev films including Leviathan. Zvyagintsev and Negin weave in politics and religion with a rare felicity; they bring to mind the collaboration of the Polish Kieslowski and his co-scriptwriter Piesiewicz. However, Zvyagintsev’s collaboration with music composer Philip Glass is limited to Elena and Leviathan. Philip Glass’ music used in the film was Glass’ composition Akhnaten, the Pharaoh, who practiced monotheism in ancient Egypt. That operatic musical composition  also deals with power and religion, not far removed from the subject of Leviathan. The use of Glass’ music in the two Zvyagintsev films could serve as a master-class for some of the Hollywood’s currently feted directors because Zvyagintsev uses music only when it is essential and relevant and adjusts the volume with care. The rest is diegetic sound on his film soundtracks.  The third major Zvyagintsev collaborator is his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who continues to contribute richly to the visual canvas in all the four Zvyagintsev films. While most viewers will recall the fossilized bones of a blue whale in Leviathan, the most enigmatic shot in the film is the shot of a live whale in the distance at a key point in the film—the last scene of Kolya’s wife alive in the film as she contemplates the sea and her predicament. What Zvyagintsev and Krichman achieved in Leviathan in the final snowbound sequence was ironically close to the final shots of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, the Turkish film that competed with Leviathan and won the top prize at the 2014 Cannes film festival. Though both are amazing films, Leviathan, for this critic had more plus points when comparing both. Most importantly, Leviathan was more original in content than the Golden Palm winning Winter Sleep, which was anchored to a Chekov story. Most of all, Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, though referring to Hobbes and the Bible, is extraordinarily brave in showcasing the corruption in contemporary non-Communist Russia. And like Ceylan's Winter Sleep, Leviathan also underscores the plight of the poor when the rich and powerful people, crush their lives. Even the motives behind an apparent good deed to adopt a friend's teenage son is questioned in the film.

Zvyagintsev’s cinema is not the run-of-the-mill cinema. Many crucial scenes of the tale are never shown on screen—he prefers to show the aftermath. The viewer is forced to imagine what could have happened. The fight between Nikolai and Dimitri is never shown; we only see Dimitri’s injured face. The death of Kolya’s wife is never shown; only her dead body is shown.  The evil antagonist forces are described in a reverse quixotic detail when the corrupt Mayor asks Dimitri, the lawyer, if he was baptized, when Dimitri confronts the Mayor with the evidence of his "sins." What a loaded question, and the irony is, who is asking! The Orthodox Bishop asks the corrupt Mayor "We are in God's house. Did you take communion?" and reminds him that both are doing God's work.  One of the final scenes is of the corrupt Mayor’s child looking up at the church’s ceiling after the sermon which includes the statement of the Bishop "Love dwells not in strength but in love". Nothing in Zvyagintsev’s cinema is without considered thought. An intelligent viewer has to pick up the details. And as in Elena, Leviathan too ends with squawking of a crow on the soundtrack, before the colorful and deep music of Philip Glass takes over for the finale.

Kolya's teenaged son Roma mopes over his stepmother's unethical actions: Zvyagintsev's
imagery of  a fossilized "Leviathan" is brought into perspective

Children and boys in particular played major roles in all the four Zvyagintsev feature films. In Elena and Leviathan, the young boys find alternate entertainment with their friends far away from home.  In Elena, the youngsters fight among themselves; in Leviathan, the youngsters are less boisterous and appear drugged/drunk, no longer fighting among themselves to achieve something. The boys gather in a broken-down unused church.  Zvyagintsev is evidently making a time-based sociological statement on Russian youth and the Russian Orthodox Church.  Young-boys-revolting-against-their-parents is a recurring theme for Zvyagintsev. In Leviathan, the son Roma is born from a first marriage of Kolya and his anger against his stepmother is understandable. When Dimitri is beaten up and threatened to be shot to death by the Mayor, Dimitri is asked if he has any thoughts for his daughter we never see. What Zvyagintsev shows us instead is a little girl on the train Dimitri is taking back to Moscow, possibly reminding Dimitri of his own.

In Leviathan, the wife is ambiguous embodying both the good and the evil, whom the
good Kolya forgives 

Wives in all Zvyagintsev’s films are interesting to study: some good, some evil, and some ambiguous in their actions. In Leviathan, the wife is ambiguous—we can only guess why she acted the way she did. She strays from the path of a good wife but chooses to return to her husband. In The Return, the viewer is never told why the father was absent for years. Zvyagintsev apparently believes that the jigsaw puzzles (a motif used in The Banishment) he presents in his films in varied ways can be completed by an intelligent viewer. He does not believe in spoon feeding his audience. Lilya, the wife in Leviathan, asks her lover Dimitri "Do you believe in God?" Evidently she does.

To end this review, it might be more than relevant to again quote from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan“He that is taken and put into prison or chains is not conquered, though overcome; for he is still an enemy.” The enigmatic shot of the live whale in the distance towards the final minutes of the film exemplifies this last Hobbes quote.

P.S. All the three preceding Zvyagintsev films--The Return, The Banishment, and Elena--have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. Leviathan is the best of the 10 top films of 2014 for the author and is one of top 15 films of the 21st Century for him. It has subsequently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Mr Zvyagintsev is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers.


Murtaza Ali said...

Another great film analysis, Sir! Since I haven't yet seen the movie, I obviously cannot really appreciate the finer aspects of the movie that you have touched upon in your review. But since I have had the privilege of watching the first two films of Andrei Zvyagintsev (The Return as well as The Banishment), I can definitely relate to his cinema. The influence of Tarkovsky on his films is quite evident. I just can't wait to watch Leviathan!!!

Весёлый Гений said...

Leviathan GREAT FILM

Tiago Gambogi Xingu Vivo said...

Great article! Thank you! Regards, Tiago Gambogi