Nearly every review of Andrei Zvyagintsev's film comments on the picture of Vladimir Putin hanging in a crooked mayor's office as he negotiates the payment of blackmail to a Moscow lawyer who has dirt on him. But the film's real comment on Russia's prime minister comes during a drunken picnic as the guys plan some target practice. After the birthday boy spoiled the first round by taking out a row of vodka bottles with an AK-47, he brings out a series of portraits of past Soviet leaders for the next round. We see Lenin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, et al, while the collector mentions that he has a picture of Boris Yeltsin, whom he considers a small fry. As for the present generation (i.e. Putin), he says: let them ripen on the wall for a while. In other words, the jury is still out on the country's current controversial leader. Some outsiders expect every Russian cultural product to reflect on Putin in some way, since so many people abroad seem to obsess over him. In this case, Leviathan's corrupt, drunken, thuggish mayor should represent a thuggish corruption unique to Putin's Russia. If anything, however, Zyagintsev is part of a much older Russian cultural tradition that's as self-critical (if not "self hating") as any American trend. He may be a 21st century Dostoevsky, except that he seems to spurn, or at least keep a critical distance from spiritual solace. Meanwhile, Russians may not have the same tradition of anti-government thinking that we have in the U.S., and may not take one corrupt politician to represent politicians or rulers as a whole. Rather, there's a long "If the Tsar only knew" tradition that holds individual politicians rather than the central government responsible for local corruption. Zvyagintsev clearly sees something very wrong with Russia, but he most likely thinks it was wrong long before Putin came along.
Ironically, Zyagintsev, who won a screenplay award at Cannes but lost Best Foreign Film to Ida at the Oscars, claims to have been inspired by an American tragedy. If so, his Russification of the story includes a telling difference. In the American case, an aggrieved property owner attacked his municipal government with an armored bulldozer before the cops shot him down. That seems like a characteristically American climax somehow. In Leviathan, the aggrieved property owner, Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), doesn't get to go so dramatically berserk. He takes out his frustrations on his straying second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), only to end up apparently framed for her murder when her suicide looks more likely to us. The drunken thuggish mayor (Roman Madyadov) wants Kolya's land and has manipulated the law to drive him off with a payment far below the property's value. Kolya's old army buddy Dima is the Moscow lawyer who appears to save the day by blackmailing the mayor. But everything falls apart as Dima starts an affair with Lillia, only to be discovered by Kolya's borderline-delinquent son Roma (Sergei Prokhodaev) at the picnic. Dima's defeat is complete when the mayor and his goons beat him up, tease his execution-style murder and leave him tied up in a ditch miles away from town. Lilya has a chance to go to Moscow with Dima but chooses to return to Kolya despite his drunken threat to kill her. He wants to reconcile but Roma has always hated his stepmother and his eavesdropping on some rough reconciliation sex in the basement sends him over the edge, and eventually does likewise for Lilya. Kolya's only recourse is drunken despair. A priest compares him to Job -- hence Leviathan as in "Can you bait Leviathan with a fishhook," though the presence of whales and whale bones in this coastal town also justify the title. Job's problem, the priest says, was that he was preoccupied with the meaning of life, the point being that only God can figure that out and that Kolya should stop sulking and stewing over his grievances and misfortunes. Faith, then, is Kolya's only hope, except that he's off to jail for fifteen years while a brand-new church rises where Kolya's home once stood.
What solace can the church offer if its foundation is built on crime? Leviathan gives us starkly different visions of the church, contrasting the priest who attempts to console Kolya, and who collects day-old bread from the store for the poor, with a more worldly prelate who acts as the mayor's spiritual advisor and gets to consecrate the new church building. The poor priest challenges Kolya's despair, answering his "where was your god?" question with: My god is doing fine; how about yours? Yet Zvyagintsev makes even this presumably well-meaning divine somewhat repellent by visually equating his distribution of bread with the slopping of hogs. I don't know if that was his intent, but the juxtaposition definitely is intentional, though the point may be that people are hogs, not that religion is slop. Leviathan certainly portrays a squalid Russia, one that seems to run on vodka, and for which there are no easy alternatives. The most a Russian might say in his country's defense is that Zvyagintsev is more misanthrope than self-hater. If so, he's a curiously reticent misanthrope, at least by American standards. His preference is to distance us from violence if he can't avoid showing it. We don't see the fight at the picnic in which Kolya beats up Lilya and Dima, for instance, while we see Dima beaten up by the mayor's goons from behind the windshield of a car with its radio playing. Spiritual brutalization rather than violence seems to be his subject, and the overall tone of the film isn't distant in the American satiric style that often seems condescending. Leviathan is too empathetic and indignant for satire. Zvyagintsev sparks our anger over Kolya's treatment and encourages us to hold on to it by denying him or us a catharsis. If the church's answers are unsatisfactory, it's up to his Russian audience to think of something themselves. It's enough for us foreigners to understand that "get rid of Putin" isn't answer enough for the problems Leviathan diagnoses. While the film is inescapably about Russia on some level, I think global audiences will appreciate this worthy film more if they recognize the universality of the human conditions it portrays instead of striving to see it as a political statement.