Who Then Is Able to Stand Before Me?, by David Bax
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan accomplishes a few things that are rare in cinema. First off, it actually looks and feels like it’s cold in the Russian town where the film takes place. It’s remarkably difficult to get people in a comfortable movie theater to feel as cold as the characters are supposed to be. Leviathan pulls it off with a mix of cinematography, performance and design. But Zvyagintsev’s real accomplishment is that he’s made something both piercingly intimate and almost ineffably massive. The domestic drama unfolding inside the house that is the story’s crux is on equal footing with the merciless cold just outside its walls.
Aleksey Serebryakov plays Nikolay, an army veteran who has retired to a house that he built himself, overlooking a river. He lives with his son, Romka (Sergey Pokhodaev) and his second wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova). He fixes cars. He has a good life. But the corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov) has imposed a sort of eminent domain, claiming Nikolay’s land and home for the city. The mayor’s intentions for the property are left unstated initially but Zvyagintsev doesn’t allow much speculation that they might be altruistic. For assistance, Nikolay calls in his army buddy, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov, from Fernando Meirelles’ 360), who is now a lawyer in Moscow.
Leviathan is stuffed with biblical allusions (including the titular beast but more on that later). At first, though, they seem to be possibly tongue-in-cheek. We see the mayor consulting with a priest and appearing pious immediately before getting drunk and showing up at Nikolay’s house in the middle of the night to bully him. Still, the film’s spiritual current takes a backseat for most of the first half, which assumes the form of a legal drama that finds deep tension in the banal. Like in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, the cause and effect of each unfortunate outcome piling into the next create a crushing momentum.
Only when the secular institutions have obliterated Nikolay does it become clear that we’re watching a modern retelling of the story of Job. The religious references and imagery start to spread across and into the picture. God invoked the leviathan to demonstrate his power to Job; that colossal beast with which no man can contend was created by God along with everything else. It’s an awesome expression of God’s power but it’s also a devastating diminishment of Job’s and, for that matter, Nikolay’s.
The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, has maintained for me quite a bit of reverence, long after I stopped actually believing in it. Partially that’s because God’s words to Job about the leviathan seem to hold true of the book itself. They are words on a page. You could type them up and print them out from a cheap laptop. But they are more than that, immensely so. Regardless of my faith in their veracity, these words and stories have more power than every book on my bookshelf combined. It’s hard not to feel humbled by them and it’s easy to feel helpless against them when they are wielded by an opponent. Anyone who has experienced them should be able to sympathize with Nikolay’s tribulations. Director of photography Mikhail Krichman translates these exact impressions to the screen. His masterful images feel like they cannot be contained by the frame. You could watch Leviathan on a tablet and it would feel like Imax. That said, you should probably not watch it on a tablet if you can avoid doing so.
Nikolay goes from being overrun by the laws of man to being flattened by the laws of God. Leviathan finds a rich vein of conflict between the two sets of rules and where they do or do not overlap. Mostly, though, Zvyagintsev shows how one man is dwarfed by the movements of the universe while never letting us forget how infinitely deep are the emotions of that one man.