Kolia lives in a small town near the Barents Sea, in North Russia. He has his own auto-repair shop. His shop stands right next to the house where he lives with his young wife Lilya and his son from a previous marriage Roma.

Vadim Shelevyat, the Mayor of the town, wants to take away his business, his house and his land. First he tries buying off Kolia, but Kolia cannot stand losing everything he has, not only the land, but also all the beauty that has surrounded him from the day of his birth. So Vadim Shelevyat starts being more aggressive...

Reviewed at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar


Portrait of political paralysis reels you in.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: 17th Century English political philosophy meets 21st Century Russian fury in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s bone-rattling epic, Leviathan.

The skilled storyteller applies Hobbes’ landmark three-part essay on the function of government to the accessible real-world scenario of an everyman put through the wringer by political and personal betrayal.

Grizzled, sozzled Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov) makes a modest living as a mechanic in a remote fishing village in Northern Russia. He shares his rambling light-filled shack with second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and brooding son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev).  He grudgingly pulls favours for his police mates, and together, they drink til all hours of the night. This would all make for a fairly bland portrait of weather beaten pastiche if there weren’t a grubby bureaucrat trying to stealing his land.

Oscar-nominated Leviathan ruffles feathers in Russia
MOSCOW, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev's Oscar-nominated film Leviathan has won acclaim around the world but is dividing opinion back at home, where some see it as a critique of President Vladimir Putin and Russia itself.

Kolia is caught up in the lengthy appeals process of an ongoing legal dispute with the mayor. Vadim (Roman Madyanov), drunk on power and also frequently, on vodka, treats the city like his personal property. He has sanctioned Kolia’s land for the purpose of “community development” but this barrel of self-interest really just wants a nice spot on which to build his new dacha. Vadim’s appropriation of byzantine zoning law has been shoddy, and worse, he has suckered Kolia out of a fair price.

A bored judge rattles off the claims and counter-claims as if reciting pages from the phone book, which, incidentally, she might as well be doing, for all the good the Kangaroo Court appeals process does for Kolia's complaints.

He calls in a favour from an ex-army buddy, Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who has made a name for himself as a Muscovite lawyer; sharp-suited Dimitri’s ability to name check the right Big City people makes the mayor sit up and take notice, as does the folder he carries that outlines Vadim’s misdeeds. It looks as though a smoking gun might just solve the problem, but don’t forget this is a place where that sentence is all-too-often subject to literal interpretation.

A marital sub-plot exposes Kolia to conflict on a second front, and Dimitri’s resolution skills are unwelcome and of no use. We see the aftermath of violent confrontation, in scenes that demonstrate the brutes we’re all capable of being to each other. If on the surface this storyline seems to diverge from the political narrative, it actually nails the source text’s case for why government is a necessary evil.

A patronising priest encourages Kolia to take a leaf out of Job’s book, accept his run of misfortune and basically, cop it sweet. "Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish hook?," he asks.

Lest it all get too ponderous and quote-unquote Russian, Zvyagintsev lets his ideas percolate with ample light and shade. The dialogue is riddled with one-liners, and there’s satire used to deftly kick a few own goals into the net. Kolia and his mates use official portraits of ex-Presidents and Premiers for target practice, but hold their fire for the incumbents who lack “historical perspective”. “Let them ripen up a bit,” they wink; a smart move in a film that – amazingly – was made with partial Russian government support. 

The Leviathan book famously introduced the visual metaphor of functional government as the mighty sea creature that preserves the peace and prevents civil war. In Zvyagintsev’s examination of the relative health of the modern Russian body politic, enormous whale fossils litter the coastline out front of Kolia’s kitchen window.

Zvyagintsev may not be able to turn the tide in time to save his protagonist's cherished waterside home, but his provocative masterpiece’s broader themes speak to the power of the ripple effect.

See all of our 2014 Cannes Film Festival coverage