[Of course, there are spoilers below!]

OK, so let me start by saying that I had heard of this movie awhile back, watched the trailer, and was not in the least interested in watching it. I don’t remember exactly why, but I have a vague memory of thinking it was probably stupidly dark and mediocre. It’s nothing of the kind.

The writing and the directing/acting are excellent. So are the visuals (camera, lighting). The editing is also very well done, although I would have cut about 15 minutes, shortening several scenes, since the movie began to drag. Since I was watching via streaming, I performed this “cutting” myself by slightly jumping with a click of a mouse several times.

I followed my preferred way of watching movies which is, I watch, then I read the reviews. I want to watch with a “clean” mind, no outer influences or predispositions. This can often mean that I will miss some important, even very important information, even misunderstanding fundamental aspects, but so be it. Prior, I watched a trailer and read some short plot/topic descriptions, then sat down to watch the movie. I was missing some important information, but it actually made the watching more enjoyable.

First, although I had been told the story of Job (from the Bible) before, I completely forgot about it, and no longer had any idea what it referred to. So, although I had read some references that said the movie was a retelling of the Job story, I was oblivious to what that would be. Second, I also just read a very brief description about Hobbes’ Leviathan saying that it discussed the power of the state over an individual, but no more, so I couldn’t really appreciate any deeper inquiry in that regard. Vulture has a very nice short take: Leviathan’s title evokes Thomas Hobbes’s classically grim work of political philosophy — that’s the one where he argues for the value of monarchy and that life is “nasty, brutish, and short”.

The point of the Job tale in the Bible is exactly to instill in Christians total passivity to anything and everything that happens to them or anyone else. They are told that everything is God’s will, so if something bad happens, that also must be God’s will. Consequently, if it’s God will, and God can’t be wrong, and God is utmost good, it only follows that there must a good reason for all the evil that happens. What exactly that good reason is is never explained or discussed, because the point is just to instill passivity and subservience to evil – along with complete submission to religious authority (especially of the corrupt kind) and to stop complaining and just shuffle along. Which explains why every Christian society has been to date profoundly corrupt, evil, and violent – it’s the passivity and collaboration with evil. (The same applies to any similar religion or ideology which preaches this same passivity, by the way). This does not mean in any way that everything that Christianity preaches is bad, it’s a mixture of great extremes in terms of good and evil.

So, in Leviathan, we have Kolya (Alexey Serebriakov), a simple mechanic who lives in some dismal town in the Russian North in his little property. The place is actually quite beautiful in its own way, as all seaside places are, but it’s magnificently made dismal and despairing in the way it is filmed.

Then a corrupt local politician, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the mayor, sets his sights on Kolya’s beach-front property, and decides to appropriate it via a compulsory purchase order and by paying him peanuts for it. Kolya, naturally very hot-headed, is outraged. First, he doesn’t want to sell his property, and certainly not for peanuts, and he doesn’t want to move, and he wants to fight the mayor. So he asks for the help of an old army buddy, Dima (the handsome Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a self-assured, fearless Moscow lawyer. From what I understood of the character, Dima must have been used to fighting cases in court, not in the real word of raw power. So he naively thinks that he can bluff his way in this case, by threatening to expose Vadim via some dirt obtained from some Moscow colleague, after normal legal actions are stalled due to the corrupt locals. It was never clear to me how close Dima was to this Moscow guy or how he got the dirt. After reading some reviews, it appears such plot aspect is just that, unclear. In any case, the entire small town is a corrupt structure, and it’s not the law, but raw power that rules. The head of the rot is the mayor, but he obviously doesn’t work alone, he has full support of several other civil servants, a militia of thugs, etc. And, very importantly, that includes the local Orthodox bishop. Dima, thinking himself very smart, threatens the mayor with the dirt obtained. And this is where he gets in way over his head.

Meanwhile, in terms of family, Kolya’s adolescent son is lost and rebelling, especially against Kolya’s live-in and second wife, Lilya, correctly described by the Guardian as the ‘seductive, mysterious Elena Lyadova’. So Kolya’s life is a particular mess, but Elena seemed to love Kolya and vice-versa. Their bond being the only thing that seemed to be standing firm in the entire story. What happens next, for reasons that I couldn’t fathom, is that, after Dima enters their lives, Elena goes off to have sex with Dima.

Then, in what is supposed to be a subsequent festive birthday party, Dima gets violent with Elena. Did she threaten to tell Kolya about them? I was at a complete loss. The audience is not shown the altercation. Regardless, Kolya finds out about his wife’s betrayal with his best friend.

Meanwhile, the mayor who was not to be taken down, and certainly not without a fight, has figured out his counter attack and acts, quickly and decisively. He has the lawyer beaten, threatens to kill him, and tells him to run back to Moscow. Dima, understanding that things work differently when corruption dictates the rules, is on the first train to Moscow. Then Elena, after a rather forceful intercourse with Kolya, goes off to gaze at the sea and apparently commits suicide because she is next found dead. The police blame Kolya for her death, saying she was murdered by a blunt hit on the head. He is taken in custody, charged, convicted and his son is about to be sent to an orphanage, but is saved from this horrible fate by a couple that were Kolya’s friends. Therefore Kolya loses his loved wife, his son, his old friend, he gets blamed with his wife’s murder, and is sent to a maximum security prison for 15 years (or so). His life is completely ruined. All returns to the “norm” in the little seaside city. In the final major scene, the mayor attends church with his elegant wife and small son, and all the rest of his people, and the priest pontificates about how God is truth, and how It is bringing truth back to Russia, etc.

The Atlantic has a very good description of several plot aspects and the main issue of the story about how can an individual fight a structure of corrupt power, in this case, the state. But whether the structure is the state or not, it’s irrelevant.

How to fight a corrupt and powerful enemy is the central question of the movie. When a person suffers great injustice and wants to fight back, that is the question to be asked: can they fight back or will this means “committing suicide” – that is, suffering violent retaliation from the powerful people who committed the injustice in the first place?

In the middle of the story, Dima, being Kolya’s friend, presses Kolya to just forget the house, the maddening injustice, leave the property to the mayor, and take his family to Moscow and start anew there. Certainly he would be able to scrap off a living and move on from there, his friend tells him. But Kolya is burning with the injustice that he is the target of, and he is dying to fight back. What he doesn’t realize, and neither does his naive lawyer buddy, is that to fight you need arms (of whatever kind), but you need enough of them. And to expect the mayor to buckle with the mere threat of exposure was not enough arms. The powerful always will use whatever they have to maintain their power and impunity for their injustices. Dima underestimated the mayor. So did Kolya.

Kolya ends up paying a horribly heavy price for their mistake. Had he let himself be completely robbed by the mayor, and moved on to Moscow, he would have started anew in good health, with his wife by his side (question mark, though, given her previous senseless adultery), and his son. A move that I imagined would have then presented as the greatest danger the son starting to hang out with bad people in Moscow. And maybe him losing Elena to Dima or whoever. But overall, much better than the horrors he would face by losing his wife and spending 15 years in a maximum security Russian prison.

Which is what I call the ‘Polish woman question’ (just for the sake of a short label). I think I blogged about this Polish woman case, but I just did a short search and could not find it. Some years ago, I came across an article which mentioned the story of a Polish Jewish woman who was sent at the end of WWII to a concentration or extermination camp. I don’t remember which. Because she spent about a year there, not more, before being liberated, and obviously because of other details that I no longer remember, she survived her ordeal. She then returned to her native village in Poland to reclaim her house that the local Polish villagers had robbed her of when they sent her to what they probably thought would be her death. The reaction of the Polish villagers to her trying to get her house back was to kill her.

That’s the story in Leviathan. “What then shall we do?” In trying to fight for justice against horrible perpetrators who have power, one must always consider how vicious the perpetrators are and how they will retaliate. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about this. And sometimes the only thing you can do, unless you want to get yourself immediately killed, is to walk away, leave everything to the criminals and see if you can start anew elsewhere. At least you have your head connected to your neck, and are not being tortured.

At the same time, not everyone that fights for justice, even when running extreme risks, loses or ends up dead. The price you may be required to pay for justice must always be weighed and considered.

Lastly, basically all Western critics of this film jumped at the chance to scream about the “corruption in Russia” problem depicted by the movie, by which they mean “Putin’s Russia”, which could be further specified as “corruption in the only country where there is corruption, which is Putin’s Russia, because, you know, everything bad in the world has to do with Russia and it’s Putin’s fault”.

The director himself said that living in Russia is like living in a minefield. The Guardian:

Oscar contender Leviathan is a frank portrayal of a corrupt Russia. In a rare interview, its director talks about his country’s ‘eternal curse’ and why voting there would be a ‘completely pointless step’

Svyagintsev: “It’s like being in a minefield, this is the feeling you live with here. It’s very hard to build any kind of prospects – in life, in your profession, in your career – if you are not plugged in to the values of the system. It’s a stupid construction of society, and unfortunately the eternal curse of our territory. The ideas of the rule of law, of equal rights are hardly discussed here. There is discussion in society, but it’s pointless. I have a feeling of the absolute futility of pretending to the right to have a say in any situation. I’ve turned 50 and I’ve never voted in my life. Because I’m absolutely certain that in our system it’s a completely pointless step.”

At the same time, Svyagintsev pointed out that this movie is based on a real event that happened in the… United States.

What is so annoying about the West is that it’s always pointing fingers at other countries to draw attention away from how corrupt it is, often at the same or worse levels.

In what country in the West don’t powerful people completely wipe out defenseless individuals time and time again? Not only within their borders, but when Western countries go commit mass murder and torture abroad, or supply the arms and technology for others to do so?

“The ideas of the rule of law, of equal rights are hardly discussed here. ”

And in the West, people blabber about rights all day while violating them in plain view all the same. How nice if we didn’t have to live in such an insane finger-pointing farce.

p.s. I couldn’t find answers to some questions I had about the plot, namely, what happened during the birthday party brawl and who killed Elena, and given that I was skipping short segments of the film, I went back to watch parts of the movie again to see if I had missed any information and then updated my initial reflections above.

I confirmed something very interesting about the way this story is written. Some things are purposefully not shown nor explained. This is very interesting. We don’t see what Dima did to Elena at the birthday party, nor the reaction of Kolya and the men. Nor do we see Elena killing herself, although in the latter case, it’s pretty obvious that’s what happened.

Overall, very, very good movie. I hope good movie making doesn’t die in Russia now that the Soviet Union is gone.