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Young Critics Workshop – Leviathan

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)

“Where there is force, there is power,” spoken by an orthodox priest halfway through Leviathan, the artful work of director Andrey Zvyagintsev. These notions of force and power recur throughout the story, which revolves around Kolja, his wife Lilya, and his son Roma, who live in the visually rich environment of a seaside village in northern Russia. Though Kolja’s family has lived there for generations, the corrupt mayor has his eyes on the land and tries to force them out. Kolja’s lifelong friend and lawyer Dimitri comes over from Moscow to help.

The result is a contemporary re-telling of a biblical myth, where Leviathan refers to a seamonster, a symbol for a grand and subliminal force capable of overwhelming humanity. Implying the struggle Kolja is facing. On a more philosophical note, Thomas Hobbes introduced the term Leviathan as meaning the ruler with the absolute power, the head of the state, to prevent bellum omnium contra omnes, or everyone’s war against everyone. In this respect the Leviathan fails dreadfully, as corruption reigns in the world of Kolja and his family.

The characters seem to go about outsmarting each other with an everyday lightheartedness, which partially defines the style. It is complemented by a strong undercurrent of insecurity and vulnerability. This seemingly contradictory overall feel is emphasized by the visuals. The images have a tranquil quality; we see wide static shots establishing the rough but harmonious landscape, images that suggest everything exists in a perfect balance. The focus shifts when the film introduces signs of decaying civilization within this landscape. Shipwrecks covered in rust and oil drums being smashed against the rocks suggest corruption: the end of something that once existed as part of the harmoneous landscape, or was at least meant to. It is in this fashion that the characters develop throughout the story, questioning their fundamental values of life. Each in their own way, they apply force and show flexibility as they’re trying to deal with the often highly contradictory duality of existence. They live by ideals, either dictated by the divine scripture or the law, only to find these ideals to be corrupted as well. When Dimitri walks into the closed doors of the legal system for example, or when we see the dashboard of Kolja’s car, with an image of the divine trinity next to an image of three naked women. Whether it’s enforced by alcohol, violence or sex doesn’t matter, the flesh turns out to be weak. They all fight their own Leviathan and desperately acknowledge its presence at the same time.