By Patricia H Kushlis
Years ago when I was visiting Finnish Lapland over Easter vacation, the color of ice blue dominated land and sky. The horizons were immense. The terrain was flat, little vegetation grew to obscure the earth’s austere Arctic vastness and the sun – a fiery orange ball on the horizon at dusk – already set late in the evening. The ubiquitous Lapland mosquitos, however, had yet to appear.
It’s been a long time since a Russian film took prizes in international film festivals. This must be the first to have been set in Teriberka, a small fishing village near Murmansk on the Barents Sea close to where Russia’s Kola Peninsula and Norway meet. Further north than the upper reaches of Finland or Sweden. (film poster photo via Wikipedia)
Anthony Lane of The New Yorker reviewed the film in January. The review’s title, a review which began with Lane’s views on another film entitled “Two Days, One Night” was “Good Fights.” But was “Leviathan” really a good fight? Not from what I saw. It pitted a poor schmuck against the powers of a thoroughly corrupted state embodied in the village’s corpulent mayor seated in front of a picture of Putin acting in cahoots with its sanctimonious Russian Orthodox priest.
That same ice blue dominates the background of the recent Cannes award winning Russian film “Leviathan.” I saw it via the Internet at a friends’ house just a few weeks ago. I don’t think “Leviathan” has made it to the local art cinemas here yet in Santa Fe – but I could be wrong.
"Leviathan" is at its simplest the tragic story of a poor Russian mechanic wrongly accused and convicted of a death that he did not commit so that the entrenched powers – the mayor and the village priest - could steal his house, tear it down and confiscate the land on which it stood for their own venal purposes. One of those purposes was a church, the other was a hotel. The film’s title, of course, comes from the book of Deuteronomy or the Tanakh. In it, Leviathan is a huge sea-creature or sea-monster. The monster appears in the film as the bleached bones of a large whale washed ashore on the beach where the mechanic’s wife commits suicide.
What makes this film different from those of the Communist period – and even a powerful movie like “Burnt by the Sun” made in its aftermath – is its visual window dressing, not the underlying depiction of power and its excesses. That was always there. Yes, the characters dressed like they belonged to the 21st century and drove newly minted western vehicles. But the scenes could have been filmed years before – just substitute the Communist Party’s First Secretary for the Orthodox priest - and the result would have been the equivalent.
It’s no wonder that this film was effectively barred from the Russian public – with the exception of a single showing in a small cinema in St. Petersburg - because it is highly critical of the way Russia is ruled today from top to bottom. Yes, many ambiguities are there but this one takes little imagination to see.
What is surprising is that “Leviathan” received partial funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture and that the Russian authorities allowed it to compete in prestigious international film festivals. It is also a surprise that director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s inspiration for this film came not from Russia but from an incident in Colorado which drew the director’s attention. It is less of a surprise that this film can be seen in a more universal context: the excesses of uncontrolled capitalism working in tandem with corrupt state religion – each propping up the other.
In a sense, “Leviathan” is a throw-back to the centuries of Tsarist Russia when the state controlled religion and religion kept Russian subjects in line through threats of the fear of a vengeful God. The vast majority of them were indentured serfs until 1861 – then during the Communist era the peasants were chained to the “kolkhoz” or collective farm – and under Stalin, the “rich” ones were murdered - so there wasn’t much difference.
There’s a scene in the film where teenage boys from the village are found around a camp fire set in the ruins of an old orthodox church outside of town. Given the strong use of symbolism throughout the movie, I assume this scene is also meant to be symbolic but of what I’m unsure. Irreverence for religion? The irrelevance of religion to today’s youth? Or maybe not.
"Leviathan" moves at far less than lightning speed but the action builds block by block, scene by scene. It provokes thought: its messages and images churn in the brain well after the theater lights have been turned on. Isn’t that – in the end - the gold standard for a lasting film or a play?