Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
When writing about Russia, we often resort to elegy for a fallen, or at best, falling nation. The problem with such elegies is that the Russia to which we bid farewell is more of an archetype than an actual country. As Nabokov’s Pnin describes it, it becomes increasingly difficult to see how Russia could be any more than just “a sad stylized toy, a bauble found in the attic, a crystal globe which you shake to make a soft luminous snowstorm inside over a minuscule fir tree and log cabin of paper mache.”
Nowadays, the critique of contemporary Russia is often framed in terms of a nation that is riddled both with bureaucracy and unfair process. In this Russia, the individual’s battles against institutions are lost long before they begin. As critics would have it, Leviathan is yet another film of this genre: a Russian everyman, Kolya, is trapped in an administrative jungle and we can do little more than watch his futile attempts to stand against a corrupt system. This take on both Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan and today’s Russia, however, misses something important: the distance between the everyman and the society he wages war against is imagined. The everyman is a part of his society. This, of course, does not mean that social critique is impossible. But it shows that social critique needs to begin without thinking that we can talk in the abstract about what is good for individuals away from the constitutive social relations in which they find themselves.
Leviathan‘s plot is uncomplicated. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is Zvyagintsev’s everyday hero: a self-employed mechanic who lives in the Russian arctic with his younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and son. They own a seaside home that has been passed down through his family for generations, a fact that even passing familiarity with Russian real estate markets suggests is unique. Wilful Kolya is used to having things his own way. In one of the earliest scenes, he refuses to help a policeman with a car repair on demand. It is immediately clear that Kolya takes great pleasure in leaving the bureaucrat feeling both unnerved and defenceless. “He didn’t like that very much,” Kolya remarks. It is a refreshing change from what we expect and eventually see: Kolya’s hopeless attempts to achieve justice in a callous system.
Strong-willed Kolya is in an embittered battle over his family’s property, which the rotten mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) is in the process of seizing. Mister Mayor looks a bit like a Tammany Hall caricature of the corrupt politician—on screen, his flaws spill out just as he does in his ill-fitting dress shirt. If there is an urban sophisticate in the film, it is Kolya’s friend and Moscow lawyer, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichekov), who is enlisted to help him navigate the court process. Courtesy of some political bigwigs in Moscow, Dmitri sets out to blackmail Vadim. Dmitri, however, is not quite our Mr. Smith in Washington, and after he and Lilya embark on a brief affair, all ends in tragedy.
Yet critics have ignored the deep-rooted moral ambivalence that redeems Zvyagintsev’s latest film. Victims of injustice are often, too, its perpetrators. We cannot simply step outside of our social relations to critique institutions as being unjust. As Zvyagintsev would have it, no one is beyond moral reproach. While Leviathan’s plot is straightforward, its moral outlook is not. Leviathan is a harsh appraisal of post-Soviet Russia, but even its heroes belong to this Russia. Any criticism of the state is to some extent self-criticism. The film is not about the banal conflict between the individual and the system, as many reviewers would have it, because the individual is unavoidably a part of the system. It is for this reason that Zvyagintsev refuses to exonerate his heroes. Even the most noble characters in the film—Kolya, Lilya, Dmitri—are flawed, sharing in the common nature that characterises the film’s sometimes exaggerated villains and callous institutions. Even if Vadim and the legal system are caricatured, Lilya, Kolya and Dmitri aren’t immune to the mayor or the institution’s vices. Kolya is easily provoked, Lilya is unempathetic, and Dmitri prone to exploit.
These flawed characters are part of the Russian director’s characteristic theodicy, best voiced by a policeman’s warning in response to a child playing out in the derelict landscapes of the Barents. The policeman tells the child’s mother not to worry about her child who has wandered off, as after all, “man is the most dangerous animal in the forest.” Whether Zvyagintsev’s sombre portrayal of human nature is attributable ultimately to the state of nature or to theological doctrine, however, is left open-ended by the film just as much as its title. Exploring man’s dark attributes, a preoccupation of Zvyagintsev’s debut masterpiece, The Return (2003), means that moral ambivalence turns up both in people and institutions. And when institutions go wrong, they inherit and magnify flaws already inherent in all human beings, be they heroes or villains. It is not just that the individual, in this case Kolya, is in a morally precarious situation when negotiating his actions in a distant and imperfect system. The way that institutions have failed him means that making good moral choices in his own seemingly individual life is next to impossible.
However, things are not unidirectional, with institutions affecting the people within them. We, too, bring our flaws to societies: the consequences of our apparently individual moral choices, multiple and unforeseeable, are played out and magnified in systems. The flaws of bureaucracy do not arise from nowhere. Hardened, insensitive, and exploitative, the system plays out the collective imperfections of people like Kolya, Lilya, and Dmitri, even while it also exacerbates these very attributes. But whether it is even possible to have just citizens, let alone just societies, is the very thing that Zvyaginstev calls into question. By thinking about people as embedded in societies, with institutional and individual flaws feeding into each other, Zvyaginstev’s favoured targets—in particular the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church—are not uniquely culpable.
In shifting the focus from our moral and social landscape to critiques of the Kremlin and the Church, critics have reduced Zvyagintsev to a filmmaker less talented than he really is. Admittedly, critics’ superficial viewing of Leviathan is not entirely groundless. At its weakest, Zvyaginstev seems to lose sight of his more interesting project: dissolving the way that people talk about the individual and the institutional as though they are neatly separable. While his criticisms of contemporary Russia are far from unsupported, they risk appearing heavy-handed and unsubtle. Zvyagintsev’s take-downs of the corrupt Church and Russian political system are far from new; the director inherits widespread Russian cynicism about the seemingly odd alliance. Just several decades after repression of the Church in Soviet Russia, the strengthening of ties between the Church hierarchy and the Kremlin is remarkable. Patriarch Kirill, for instance, has described the Putin era as a “miracle of God” and openly criticised the president’s opponents. In light of this, Vadim’s clerical advisor, who all but goads the mayor on to further injustices, looks just more like the archetype that we already imagine, pandering to those with political power. Here Zvyagintsev misses an opportunity to address the way that religious and political structures make it more likely that our individual flaws are expressed and that these structural problems are likely to stem from our own blemishes in the first place.
Similarly grating are Leviathan‘s thinly veiled references to the Pussy Riot, one of few anti-government protests familiar to western audiences. Near the movie’s close, for instance, a bishop’s sermon laments that “blasphemy is called prayer,” an allusion clearly directed at the protest group’s now-infamous performance in a Moscow cathedral. Even less subtly, a television grey screen in a hotel room flashes a headline about Pussy Riot. If Zvyagintsev isn’t going to engage with the state of dissent in Russia more seriously, these moments in the film feel gratuitous. Yet, at times, it is easy to focus on these moments, losing sight of Zvyagintsev’s much more interesting moral contribution: dissolving the dichotomy between the individual and the institutional.
Thankfully, the reception of Zvyagintsev’s film itself reminds us that the real relationships between the individual, the government, and religion—even in contemporary Russia—turn out to be more complicated than we may think. In spite of its unabashed critique of the Russian ruling elite, Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan was chosen as Russia’s nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The Russian director, too, has an ambivalent relationship to his home country. Zvyagintsev has vowed that, even considering the problems facing Russia, he won’t leave. And if the director really was interested in making a film with the primary aim of confronting power in Russia, accepting over a third of the film’s funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture would seem to be a strange way of going about this. Surely, the funds would have constrained the depth of the critique.
Both Leviathan‘s content and its reception resist easy resolution. While there is room to critique Russia, to place all the blame on clergy and bureaucrats like Vadim would be to ignore that the perpetrators of injustice, too, are part of social structures that incentivise such behaviour. And, conversely, we can’t critique the Church or the Kremlin without thinking about how these institutions have membership that consists of real people. This brings us back to Dmitri, who claims that everything that happens is not the fault of any particular party or institution, as after all, “everybody is guilty of something.” No one has clean hands. And Dmitri continues, “even if we confess, the law says confession is not proof of guilt. You’re innocent until proven otherwise. But who’s going to prove anything? And to whom? No one is blameless.” Not institutions, certainly. But also not Kolya, not Lilya, not Dmitri, and not even Zvyagintsev.
Shivani Radhakrishnan  is reading for a PhD in philosophy at Columbia University. She completed her BPhil in philosophy at Linacre College, Oxford