Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) begins where the ocean meets the sand. The skeleton of a whale marks in the shape of a prehistoric fence marks the boundary. The tides lap at the pale bones, the coastal cliffs, and gray rocks. Almost everything appears lost in its own shape.
And, when the film ends, these images will once again become the focus as the mythic sounds of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten rise from the barren landscape. If not for the music’s dramatic stirring of life, death might appear the more logical choice for the residents and organisms of this sea-stricken peninsula straggling its way into the Arctic Circle. The majesty of Leviathan’s prelude and the weight of its coda align the film’s skeleton with the heft and shape of Herman Melville’s great whaling novel. As Ishmael observes in the last lines of Moby Dick, “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” And yet Zvyagintsev’s film is not so much about the ocean but the land, and the only literal whale to appear on screen has been reduced to white bone.
In the absence of Glass’ Akhnaten, Koyla (Aleksey Serebryakov), the film’s protagonist, must appease the local police force with favors, resist his local government’s attempts to seize his ancestral home, and confront the betrayal of his friend and lawyer (from Moscow). Thus, Koyla’s life is at risk of battery not so much from wind and wave but rather from the riptides of Russian culture, its economic pangs and its calloused courts. His experiences of tragedy and oppression at first appear to be the singular struggle of one man, but his life transforms into a metonym for the whole. Perestroika is not a moment of past political upheaval but the constant status of the Russian people, preceding and succeeding everything in an unending linear fashion. In other words, the harpoon is being driven to some unknown end; the process of which is a constant and violent thrust.
As stated earlier, Koyla resides in an ancient house. His wife is dead, but he lives with Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his dead wife’s son. While living under the same roof, this family unit lacks unity. The boy resists the notion that Lilya can replace the woman who birthed him, clouding the house in shades of steely gray. The place lacks love, yet Koyla and his family fragments refuse to let go. Yet his efforts are in vain.
By film’s end, Koyla will be defeated. Lilya will be dead, and his son will be living with foster parents in a small apartment that resembles the housing units built by Stalin and other Soviet leaders during once harsher times. The film gains its historical continuity by transferring the government’s past disregard for domestic space into the present. Government officials, specifically Roman Madyanov (Vadim Shelevyat), want Koyla’s land, not his home. Thus, the joints and jousts of his family’s house are like the whale skeleton. When the bulldozers come to call—gouging the walls and collapsing the roof—the ocean’s violence reveals itself in the shape of economic industry.
The film is, again, not so much about the ocean but the cultural tides that displace individual lives. In the hunting trip that reveals the betrayal of Vladimir Vdovichenkov (Dmitriy Seleznyov), the men in the group fire hunting rifles at the framed images of the past century’s leaders: Lenin and Stalin and Khrushchev. When a picture of Boris Yeltsin surfaces, a local policeman argues that the image is not old enough for its destruction to have ripened. These images of failed leadership are dispersed throughout the film. In the office of Madyanov hangs an image of Vladimir Putin. And, in the later sequences of the film, religious iconography eclipses the images of Russia’s political past. Yet Madyanov’s presence in the church calls into question any distinction between faith and power, creating a strangely accurate juxtaposition between the Russian Church and Russian Communism. What is already was and seems to always be.
Strikingly absent from any of the film’s icons is the presence of female leadership. The film’s internal structure reflects this absence throughout its duration. Koyla’s wife, his son’s mother, is present only through her absence. In this sense, she is more ghost than memory. When Lilya’s body is found on the beach, the metaphor of the Mother Country—of Mother Russia—also appears to be discovered dead and therefore wanting. With the exception of Koyla’s friends taking in his son, the film is absolutely devoid of hope or redemption.
Moreover, what’s so frightening in the film is that the unknown is so steady and constant that we forget how well we already know it.
In the sports documentary Red Army (2014), the interview with Russian hockey player and Minister of Sport Viacheslav Fetisov acts as the hub holding the film together. His talent on the ice, his resistance to a totalitarian regime, and his embattled loyalty to his countrymen mark him as an interesting parallel to the fictional character Koyla. Where Koyla’s refusal to give up the past causes the Russian court and penal system to swallow him whole, Fetisov appears unable to give up on the idea that his image as a sports icon can rescue his nation from the corruption and abuse that delayed his entry into the NHL and held him captive within his own country. The comparison between Koyla and Fetisov reveals a jarring similarity between those living in denial and those acting out of loyalty.
Of note, too, is the fact that Fetisov spent his childhood in one of Stalin’s housing units. His childhood upbringing, his training as an athlete, his time as Sports Minister have all taken place within the belly of the Russian system. Any conclusions drawn from Leviathan suggest that such systems render life if not impossible then at least futile, yet Red Army manages to both question and justify the presence of such systems.
While Leviathan adds nuance to the relationship between religion and power, its suggested conclusions leave very little room for complexity. The film’s response to change and revolution is that all changes and all revolutions are consistently the same in their abilities to regenerate oppressive forces. The film’s argument may be accurate, but it offers no models for agency other than violence and death.
Red Army, however, moves towards a subtle examination of flexible space.
Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.