At the Golden Globes, Sundance and the Academy Awards, the film world’s attention was on one of this year’s top foreign-language contenders, “Leviathan.” This Russian film, which won the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s award for best foreign-language film at the Golden Globes, compels the Ukrainian in me to pay even closer attention.
Set on the far northern coast of Russia, presumably removed enough from the central government in Moscow, “Leviathan” opens with a frustrated auto mechanic, Kolya, facing his last appeal to keep his home and business before being evicted by a corrupt mayor. Kolya, played by Aleksei Serebryakov, enlists the help of an old friend, Dima, an influential lawyer from Moscow in a last attempt to keep his livelihood. Dima, played by Vladimir Vdovichenkov, travels to the isolated village with a thick folder bearing years of evidence from the mayor’s shady dealings. But Dima’s mission is complicated by Kolya’s moody teenage son, Roma, played by Sergey Pokhodaev, and his unhappy second wife, Lilia, played by Elena Lyadova.
When Dima thinks he can successfully blackmail the mayor into leaving Kolya alone, the movie truly begins. The characters’ lives unravel on the screen for two hours, leaving only the mayor and his cronies unscathed – at least superficially.
Though the film has won a Golden Globe for best foreign film, a Palm d’Or for best screenwriting, and a whole cadre of other international awards, “Leviathan director Andrey Zvyagintsev calls it “a very Russian film.”
“We live in a feudal system when everything is in the hands of one person,” says Mr. Zvyagintsev, “everyone else is in a vertical of subordination.”
The film uses allegory to depict today’s corrupt Russia as an insurmountable sea monster, like the film’s biblical namesake; as in the Old Testament, the leviathan is evil incarnate. Mr. Zvyagintsev’s screenplay depicts Vladimir Putin’s Russia using the same words that describe the leviathan in the Book of Job, “if you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!”
The film’s leviathan is so literal at times, that it’s hard to ignore the message that comes across. While dealing with past tragedies, the characters meditate on the washed-up bones of a whale; when enveloped in depression, an even bigger, living whale waits to swallow up its newest victim. The genius of Mr. Zvyagintsev is that, in his eyes, the Soviet Union was one leviathan, while Mr. Putin’s Russia is just another.
What does this film have to do with Ukraine though?
Unfairly or not, today’s conflict in Ukraine is perceived as a tug of war between the West and Russia. Though I believe this conflict is the unfortunate result of Ukrainians’ stand for dignity over tyranny, Ukrainians have been faced with the personal dilemma of who to believe, who to align themselves with, and whether they are willing to place their trust in Russia or the West.
“Leviathan,” in the words of its director, and by virtue of being banned and condemned by Russian officials, is an honest depiction of life in Russia under the current regime. It depicts the very Russia Ukrainians are fighting to not be a part of, or even closer to; it shows the path Ukraine was on under Viktor Yanukovych.
Though Mr. Zvyagintsev admits the film is partly inspired by the case of Marvin Heemeyer, a Colorado mechanic who was forced out of business by a local city council, the similarities stop there. “Leviathan” takes on a distinctly Russian character, and is saturated in the cynicism harbored for centuries in that part of the world.
We, who have the benefit of living or growing up in the United States and see Ukraine and Russia during periodic visits, don’t need to dig very deeply to see where life is better or where the standards of living are higher. The tragedy is that many people still believe that Russia holds a match to the West’s ability to do good. Countries like Poland and the Czech Republic that had previously been behind the Iron Curtain have managed in only a few decades to throw out most of the Soviet world’s baggage by accepting Western values and standards of living.
Of course, we cannot ignore the West’s imperfections and record of its own wrongdoing, but I strongly believe the West strives to learn and grow from its own mistakes. “Leviathan” proves that Russia is a place where short-term memory is the best policy.
In fact, we in the West have found corruption narratives to be so compelling, and have internalized its self-criticism to the point that there’s almost a niche genre for them. Audiences have embraced depictions of Western corruption in shows like Netflix’s “House of Cards,” about a corrupt politician in the high echelons of the United States government, or HBO’s “The Wire,” which paints a bleak portrait of Baltimore’s law enforcement system. “Leviathan,” however, depicts Mr. Putin’s Russia as institutionally corrupt everywhere you look.
While the media’s portrayal of Western corruption inevitably has corrupt government pitted against good government, “Leviathan” shows no chance for good to ever prevail in Russia’s government.
In fact, the idea of depicting Russian corruption is so taboo that Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky denied the film gave any fair representation of Russia, leading to a de facto ban on the film veiled under a new foul-language ban in Russian movies. Mr. Medinsky then went ahead to propose new regulations on films that “defile national culture.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Zvyagintsev is so convinced of his story’s significance, that he even encouraged the public to illegally download the movie, with as many as 4 million people taking up his offer.
The genius of “Leviathan” is that it depicts a breaking point for people who have survived regime after regime. “Leviathan” is what happens when survivors are tired of just getting by. Ukrainians shouldn’t have to survive as Russians have had to. Ukraine should thrive as a Western society.
Julian Hayda of Chicago is studying digital cinema and journalism at DePaul University. He is a member of the Group for Tomorrow’s Ukraine (formerly known as the Euromaidan Journalist Collective).