The Russian film Leviathan won the best screenplay at Cannes in 2014 but really it should have won best picture. Ostensibly about one man’s struggle against the corruption and duplicity of church and state in contemporary Russia, it comes as only a small surprise that, according to the director Andrey Zvyagintsev, it was inspired by the story of Marvin Heemeyer in the United States who battled with local government in a private battle that ended in tragedy. The story was then adapted into a Russian setting. Clearly corruption is a worldwide phenomenon not limited in time and space.
Hard-drinking family man and car mechanic Kolya lives with his second wife and teenage son in a house on a plot of land on the weather battered shores of the Arctic Sea owned by his family for generations. A corrupt official wants to buy the land for his own use but offers only a small compensation. Despite being represented by an army buddy who’s now a lawyer in Moscow, the local courts find against Kolya and the process begins to demolish his family home.
It’s the unrelenting attrition and the wearing down of Koyla that’s the real theme of Leviathan. Corruption, bigotry and subterfuge have a corrosive effect on the individual.
Kolya and his lawyer’s attempts to resist the court’s decision ends only in deeper trouble and arrest for Kolya who is then betrayed by his wife and the lawyer while he spends the night in prison. The forces of church and state seem hell-bent on grinding Kolya into the ground and his friends, even those in the local police, offer little in the way of support or protection.
It’s the unrelenting attrition and the wearing down of Koyla that’s the real theme of Leviathan. Corruption, bigotry and subterfuge have a corrosive effect on the individual. This metaphor is extended and echoed in the relentlessly pummeling waves on the landscape – waves that finally swallow and drown Kolya’s wife and soon render his son homeless and alone.
But perhaps the strongest image is the hallowed out, bone-white carcass of a dead and beached whale, pecked at by uncaring sea birds and watched by Kolya’s son, as he looks for respite from the drink and cigarette fuelled arguments at home and the uncertainty of his future.
Corruption and deception batter and debase everyone in their path, both those who are on the receiving end and ultimately those who practice them. They destroy from without as well as from within, and no church or state anywhere has the power of inclination to do much more than turn a blind, unfriendly eye. Power and money rule in Russia and just about everywhere else.