Cinephilia: Leviathan is a philosophical critique of modern Russia

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Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a harsh clandestine critique of modern Russia under the rule of Vladimir Putin and the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. The covertness, in order to slip past Russian censors to acquire funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture, points to the very corruption the film attempts to bring to light.

The film, which is nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars, is an allegory wherein characters represent facets of government in a town that epitomizes Russia. The mayor represents Putin, and the plot centers on a family that enters a legal battle with the government over expropriating their home and land. For all its depth, Zvyagintsev has managed to make his drama accessible to casual viewers.

Leviathan is a reference to Thomas Hobbes’ famous book of the same title, the Biblical book of Job, and a theological problem of evil. Job is described as a blameless man who quickly loses his wealth, children, and health. Despite all these bad things, he remains loyal to God. Why does a blameless man suffer such atrocities? 

Kolya, the film’s protagonist, sees his life collapse around him, but unlike Job, he is not blameless — bad things happen to him for obvious reasons. The irony is that the church facilitates the same evil that it strictly preaches against. They and everyone else in the culture are bringing it upon themselves; “the war of men against men” is the cause of evil for which Kolya blames God.

“The future is now,” says a poster hanging in Kolya’s son’s room, in contrast with the remainder of the house that is filled with pictures of ancestry and milestones. This generational home is now being threatened by the town’s mayor, who wants to develop prime real-estate near the water. Kolya hires an old army friend who is now a lawyer to take the mayor to court. Corruption is evident everywhere in this legal battle: judges, police, elected officials, the church, the hired lawyer, and even this seemingly moral family.

This is precisely Hobbes’ point. He argued that the natural condition of mankind is to fight to garner everything that one believes is necessary to preserve their life (“every man against every man”). This is a natural right and within the state of nature there is no definitive law or injustice. Hobbes asserted that it was only through the imposition of an absolute sovereign government that civil war and “the war of all against all” could be avoided.

For all its moments of harsh realism, Leviathan also indulges in grand moments of symbolic and metaphorical value. A portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs over the mayor’s head in his office (demonstrating the relation between the two), and the old burnt down church where the depressed go to drink vodka contrasts with the extravagant new church that is the building block for all of the new developments in the town (the entirety of Russia).

Everything in Leviathan feels lived in: rooted in a haunting past yet progressing towards an even more macabre future.