Photo via Leviathan Poster via Wikimedia Commons

Review: Leviathan

Why do the righteous suffer? It is a millennia-old question, so emphatically addressed in the biblical “Book of Job.” When the most devout of God’s ...

Nov 8, 2014

Photo via Leviathan Poster via Wikimedia Commons
Why do the righteous suffer?
It is a millennia-old question, so emphatically addressed in the biblical “Book of Job.” When the most devout of God’s servants is stripped of everything, afflicted with boils, deprived of wealth and children, Job bemoans his fate in solemn apostrophe, reasoning that a just God would not treat him with such vengeance. But dispelling the naïveté of man, God appears, cloaked in whirlwind. Wisdom is for the divine and for the divine alone, for man in himself can surely not pull in Leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down its tongue with a rope.
The theological richness and the inherent enigmas so powerfully illustrated in the “Book of Job” are masterfully translated to the screen in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest tour-de-force, “Leviathan.” With a 140-minute runtime, the film is a desolate and insidious portrayal of corruption in modern Russia, expertly equating contemporary suffering to original biblical plight. The film opens with a bone-chilling panoramic view of the Barents seaside; a strong wind blows, pitch-black waves crash against sheer stone monoliths and an undulating violin forebodingly introduces us to the exterior of a small, northern town.
In Zvyagintsev’s world, the town’s inner workings are just as cold and morally barren as the elements which surround it. Nikolay, played by Aleksei Serebryakov, a hot-headed yet humble father and worker, has been court-ordered to relinquish his home and land, passed through generations and constructed by his own two hands. In a parody of eminent domain, he is to receive just fewer than 650,000 rubles, around 51,000 AED, as just compensation for his entire life and past, a laughably small fraction of the property’s real worth and an infinitesimal one when accounting for sentimental value. Nikolay’s struggle to uphold his dignity and possessions is, at its most basic, a straightforward pitting of good against evil. However, the two parties are not afforded equal footing. Nikolay is not fighting a single opponent, but rather is a lone crusader waging war against a corrupt abstraction, manifested in the forms of an iron-gaveled court and in the drunken bigotry of the mayor Vadim Shelevyat, given a despicably powerful performance by Roman Madyanov. It comes as no particular surprise when Nikolay’s appeals are continually struck down. Even in the face of objective truth, his sentences are as rigid and immobile as the bronze statue of Lenin which towers outside the courtroom walls.
At the film’s conclusion, a bulldozer tears through the walls of Nikolay’s house, a behemoth trampling wood, glass and humanity underfoot. Such an ending was pre-ordained even from “Leviathan’s” solemn opening. Nikolay is not saved by some sweeping, divine gesture. There is no deus ex machina, as the machinery in question, emblemized by Vadim, the court and the broader Russian superstructure, is one that has been corrupted and enslaved. For Zvyagintsev, good does not merely triumph due to its nature alone. Nikolay, having lost everything by the film’s end, is just one case study in an overarching pattern. So, during “Leviathan’s” parting shots, when Vadim Shelevyat and other officials hypocritically celebrate their acquisitions after the Orthodox Nativity, the question again rises, why do the righteous suffer?
Paralleling the “Book of Job,” the audience is not given a justification for Nikolay’s demise. Before fading to black, the camera once again overlooks the snow-capped cliffs and turbulent oceans, the bleached bones of a whale washed ashore. Besides the wind’s howling and the waves crashing, all is silent. Only God alone knows the truth behind what has passed, only he can pull in the beast that is Leviathan.
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