Set in a bleak modern-day Russia, the film Leviathan could have easily been made about Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his fraudulent life. What starts as a local dispute between a family trying to save their house from a drunken mayor grows to be a larger examination of the state of crooked politics in Russia. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev has created a timely film about what so many people face living in that country, and what it’s like to be defeated at every turn by corruption and money.
Set in a small town on the coast, Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) is trying to protect his family and his home from the local drunk and bully of a mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who is doing what he can to seize the land for himself. Kolya calls his lawyer friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) in from Moscow to help fight for an appeal. When Kolya loses the appeal, Dima tells him that he has dirt on the mayor that may change the dynamic of the situation. Dima presents the mayor with documents in an attempt to blackmail him. Seeing that he is stuck, the mayor decides to go along with it and give in to the demands. Dima and Vadim agree on a financial settlement and arrange for an exchange. However, as is usually the case with corrupt politicians, the transaction doesn’t go as planned. Kolya’s wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) is desperate and miserable in this life. She finds the lawyer from Moscow alluring and acts in a manner that creates secrets of her own. What started as a small regional dispute becomes a larger metaphor for what everyday life is like for many people in this country.
The film is structured in such a way that it begins with broad scope setting the stage and moves inward. Grand sweeping shots of the coast bring us into this seaside town, which narrows down into this one family’s home and situation. As the secrets surrounding their circumstances are revealed, we start to get a larger picture of the people around them. We begin to see how the law works in favour of those with money and bribes and what many families must do to fight against it. The actions of a few ripple outward and it causes chain reactions within the community. This expands the breadth of the story and we see that what this one family is going through is not unique to just them alone, that it’s common across the entire country. The film gives a snapshot of the Russian culture and approach to life.
It’s really just a coincidence that this film plays in Toronto at a time when the city is dealing with a politician of the same mentality but if this film shows us anything, it’s that this situation is not unique to Russia and that corrupt, unscrupulous politicians behave in the same manner in order to obtain power, influence, and money, no matter where they are from.
The film is an excellent portrait of contemporary Russia and is very well-made, with top-notch directing, but perhaps it’s not the best fit for Toronto audiences. It is of a different style than most North America audiences are accustomed to. It’s a very slow moving film with a very depressing attitude. It perhaps did not go over the best with the filmgoers at the festival, as several walk-outs occurred throughout. This felt more suited to European audiences and sensibilities. It will almost certainly find its way to the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category but it will have a difficult time finding an audience outside of the film festival circuit.