Leviathan – A modern day book of Job

19_leviathan“Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” – Job 2:10

Andrei  Zvyagintsev’s fourth feature film has been wrapped up in political controversy in Russia. Commentators at home and in the international media have seized upon it as an attack on Vladimir Putin’s regime, personified in the film by actor Roman Madyanov’s corrupt small-town mayor.

The plot is largely concerned with Madyanov’s character Vadim Shelevyat callously destroying the life of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a mechanic who has dared to challenge a compulsory purchase order on his family home.

The mayor uses the courts to deny every possibility of appeal by Kolya, but is then surprised when the ‘louse’ has an old army friend Dmitry (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) represent him in court. The confident Moscow lawyer then threatens to expose a dark secret from Vadim’s past.

This provokes a devastating tragedy, with the full force of Vadim’s civic power brought to bear on Kolya and his family.

In that summary it is tempting to unpack a highly criticial attack on a compromised Russian bureaucracy and corrupt political class.

However, Zvyagintsev’s ambitious film sets itself bigger targets than the media commentariat would suggest.

Leviathan is a powerful modern-day allegorical reading of the Book of Job. It succeeds not only in univeralising that profound Hebrew text of a just man visited with misfortune simply as a test of his faith, but also in using the Bible story to draw attention to post-Soviet Russia’s embrace of Orthodox Christianity.

When Kolya is reduced to a sobbing mess, as his life is slowly and brutally torn apart, he calls out to God for mercy. Serebryakov is fantastic as this modern-day Job, playing a man determined to fight to protect the legacy of his family home. An encounter with a broadly sympathetic priest, who nevertheless scolds Kolya for not attending mass, introduces the parable of Job explicitly.

In Zvyagintsev’s film though, the divine presence is absent, glimpsed only in ornate chapel paintings. Instead Kolya’s suffering is orchestrated by Vadim, a devout Christian who is reassured by the bishop that he is justified in exercising his power as he sees fit.

In Leviathan, the Church is enmeshed in the exercise of political power.

Vadim and the bishop operate in tandem, with Kolya an inconvenient irritant for the future prosperity of the town.  Dmitry, as an unexpected outside influence, rejects the locals’ talk of religion, insisting that he is only interested in facts. His weakness is his earnest belief in appealing to the law to curb Vadim’s abuse of power, not realizing he has no protection if the mayor appeals to a higher authority.

This is the heart of the tragedy of Leviathan. Vadim is a righteous man, who acts with impunity because he knows he is loved by God. Kolya is without faith in religion or the state, and is left exposed when the town turns on him.

Filled with stunningly beautiful shots of a desolate Northern Russian coastline, with rotting skeletons of whales and old fishing boats hinting at a pervasive corruption within the town, Zvyagintsev has produced a moving and compelling morality fable.

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