Leviathan opens in a fishing town in Northeast Russia on the shores of the Barents Sea. The ebbing gray waters of the sea reveal a graveyard of broken boats and a coastline of abandoned, crumbling buildings. Here we meet Kolya, a weathered auto mechanic, whose ancestral home sits atop land coveted by a corrupt mayor, who, encouraged by an orthodox priest, conspires with the city to force Kolya off the land in order to develop a “Town Communications Center” in its place. Kolya cannot fight the mayor on his own, so he enlists the help of a former army colleague, Dmitri, who has become a lawyer in Moscow. Dmitri uses his influence in Moscow to acquire damning information about the Mayor’s past, in hopes of blackmailing the Mayor into paying off the developers to save Kolya’s home. Loosely based on the Book of Job, the film shows how the depths of the town’s corruption seem bottomless, and the odds against Kolya continue to mount.
The characters, like the setting of the film, are all varying shades of gray. People reveal themselves to be less upstanding and more self-seeking than they first appear – even Kolya’s friend Dmitri cannot resist making a play for the hapless mechanic’s wife. In contemporary Russia, the film suggests, there is little nobility of purpose – everyone is out for themselves, regardless of the cost to others. In the midst of all of this is Kolya, a lean, honest man oppressed by the town’s officials and the unchallengeable authority of the Russian state.
Writer/Director Andrey Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin have created both a contemporary parable and a cinematic critique of modern Russia. While the film shines a glaring light on the corruption running rampant in their country, it is interesting to note that this film was partially funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture, which belongs firmly within the state infrastructure. Clearly there is still some space left for critical self-satire in 21st century Russia. In several interviews, the filmmakers have expressed the hope that their film will help move the fight beyond just a conversation to direct actions that will give the Kolyas of the world a chance.