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Film in review – “Leviathan”

Leviathan_2014_poster“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord?” (Job 41:1)

The biblical reference is quite intentional, but what’s not completely clear is how the symbolism of the great and legendary fish is the essence of this story, which is actually a lot more like Job and hardly at all like Jonah.

Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is an independent Russian and proud of it. He lives on the same little seaside farm that his father and grandfather did and now he’s raising his son, Roma, there. But he’s divorced, and the pubescent Roma and his stepmother Lilya (Elena Lyadova) don’t get along so well.

Not only that, Kolya is struggling against an eviction notice from the arrogant mayor of their little town who covets his property to build a seaside resort. The mayor has arranged for the local government to exercise their right of eminent domain and take over Kolya’s property. There’s monetary compensation, but Kolya doesn’t figure that it’s nearly enough, especially when considered against the future income generated by commercial fishing from the seashore property. But the panel of three aldermen (who are actually all women) reject all of Kolya’s arguments and read aloud their decision to him in a staccato bureaucratic monotone that’s as heartbreaking as it is emotionless.

Kolya, a stalwart drinker of straight vodka, compensates by drinking more and hiring a lawyer friend from Moscow, Dmitri, to help with his appeal. But Dmitri obviously doesn’t hold any sway over this little town council, and besides, he’s preoccupied with the appeal of Kolya’s pretty wife, Lilya. We’re not sure exactly why she succumbs –boredom? Because he was nice to her? Because she was tired of dealing with all the conflict in her own household? Or maybe she thinks it might make Dmitri more motivated to help with the legal battle? Perhaps it’s a combination of factors, or maybe we’re just reverting to original sin here, which of course is usually not very original at all.

The mayor, for his part, is not only greedy, but corrupt. His response to Dmitri’s involvement is to order his underlings to find out any dirt about Dmitri that they can use against him. He seems the very personification of evil because he’s so uncaring about the plight of poor old Kolya, who at first just loses his temper, but later simply slumps into a drunken resignation, which his wife finds even more unsettling than his hair-trigger anger.

Can it get any worse for Kolya? Yes. And as events spiral down, he experiences, his friends commiserating uselessly but not really helping – much like Job’s experiences. Kolya doesn’t appear to be a particularly religious man, but he does encounter a priest on the way out of the convenience store and questions the priest about why God would do such a thing to him. The priest alternates between pious platitude (the ways of God are mysterious) and blaming Kolya (you haven’t been to church lately, you haven’t confessed your sins, you haven’t asked forgiveness). The mayor, of course, never misses a Sunday service and seems to have the bishop in his back pocket. At the one service we do see, the priest preaches to a congregation that remains standing – there are no pews or chairs ­– and lectures them in vague generalities about truth. But of course, he doesn’t notice the injustice done to Kolya or anybody else in this economically-depressed town, where the women labor at a fish processing plant for pittance wages and the men drink while they shoot target practice (always a lethal combination).

In a way, “Leviathan” is a morality tale, but the heroes are few. Everybody has clay feet. Everyone seems caught up in events beyond their control. Nobody seems very happy. And yet, the little story draws the viewer in just because it is so coldly realistic, so forlornly hapless and the characters are so reliably flawed. Its startling simplicity invites the viewer to consider the complexity of the cosmic forces that surround us all. Religion isn’t exactly treasured here. But the blatant biblical theology is as bracing as the northern seacoast of Russia and just as impenetrable.


RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.