There’s a song from my childhood that popped into my head as I started to write this review, and while most of the song technically doesn’t apply to the Russian-set Leviathan, the opening line does. The song: “You Can’t Fight City Hall” from Rocko’s Modern Life. In this case, though, City Hall is far more corrupt in its power, and its ability to ruin lives is truly sinister.
The film follows the struggle between Kolya and the mayor of his small town over Kolya’s land. The mayor wants Kolya’s land because it’s in a prime position, so he uses a form of eminent domain to seize the land and force Kolya and his family out. When this succeeds in court, Kolya brings in a friend, Dmitriy, who works as an attorney to appeal the decision, and they dig up dirt on the corrupt mayor in an attempt to get him to back off. The mayor, though, is unswayed by their efforts, instead doubling down on his own efforts to seize the land.
There are two scenes in the film – close enough to the beginning and end of the film to serve as bookends of sorts to the story – that demonstrate the larger power a government can hold over its citizens. In both scenes, Kolya stands before a court as he’s delivered an unfavorable ruling. The rulings are delivered in a rapid-fire, monotonic delivery that is unrelenting, threatening to bore listeners into a coma. Their purpose, though, is to demonstrate the measures set in place to protect the interests of the powerful, even when it’s evident that Kolya’s requests are worth consideration. Push back, like Kolya does, and prepare for stronger retaliation.
Leviathan is rather clearly not an American film. In spite of Kolya’s role as the David to the mayor’s Goliath, he’s nowhere near a saint. He’s a rather lousy father and husband, curt and prone to anger, and he’s a heavy drinker. His refusal to move isn’t even one the film seems ready to portray as heroic; the consequences of his actions are formidable enough to make Kolya look unwise. The film draws parallels at times between Kolya and the biblical character of Job, and while there is a shared sense of suffering at the hands of another, Job’s suffering at least has a sense of hope at some point.
While there are moments of dark humor that keep the film from being completely dour, Leviathan is largely focused on the impossibility of its protagonist being able to succeed against the institutions against him – institutions that go from the mayor’s office to the courts, even looping in the Orthodox Christian church. Leviathan may encourage fighting the system, but it’s rather pessimistic about the outcome.