Truth, pravda, lies at the heart of the beast in Leviathan. If the capitalised, not capitalist, Pravda, the late, great Soviet mouthpiece, revealed anything, it was that truth is illusion. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest offering, the follow up to 2011’s award winning, Elena, pursues truth, but as with faith, finds it can be hard to define. Leviathan unravels an interpretation that provides a tantalising taste of a redemptive Russia, before wrenching it forcefully back besmirched, belittled and beleaguered beneath bureaucracy, corrupt courts and tiny little tycoon feet. The wee feet in question belong to the face of corrupt authority: provincial Mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov). He is a loathsome, belch of a toad that embodies in mind and spirit all the worse qualities of the ever-expanding oligarchic elite.
Mayor Vadim is the sharp teeth in the mouth of lies and deceit that shape Leviathan and, by extension, Zvyagintsev´s Russia. The plot hinges upon Vadim’s attempted land grab of protagonist Kolya’s (Aleksey Serebryakov) isolated, lakeside homestead that fatefully rests on the site of Vadim’s grand vision of a Yanukovych-style pleasure palace. While Vadim’s grasping greed echoes of the deposed Ukrainian President, now a political exile in Russia, it resonates with matters closer to home. The references to Putin’s Russia are more oblique, in the atmosphere and tonal register of the piece as a whole, rather than explicit. The men are men in a way that is reminiscent of Putin´s own public profile as the patriarchal, patriotic and paternalistic premier, whose topless bear hunts, whale shoots and live renditions make him the perfect spouse for Mother Russia. Putin paraphernalia raises its head only once as Putin’s portrait bobs in and out of frame during an interview in Vadim’s office.
Pictures, portraiture and photos play a significant role in Zvyagintsev’s weaving of a version of truth within Leviathan. Putin’s eyes gazing down upon Vadim’s office, like an iconographical reworking of a patron saint, seem to condone, rather than condemn the spectacle. He is complicit in the action. The action features Vadim in parley with Kolya’s hotshot lawyer, Dmitri, as he attempts to blackmail the Mayor, armed only with a briefcase containing a portfolio of allegations. Kolya, the ex-military man, turned mechanic, is great friends with Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who since their shared army glory days, has transformed himself into a Muscovite power broker, fluent in the maze like spiel of Russian judicial legislature. Dmitri, as Kolya´s friend and attorney, is a fascinating mirror for the truth; a character who seems to reflect further vagaries and inconsistencies, rather than penetrate further to any real essence of a reality founded on fact.
Despite his constant claims to the opposite, Dmitri is the most callously corrupt creation within the film, living a life predicated on one, albeit singular, but almighty, lie. If Vadim is the pro-Putin element, Dmitri is Moscow mayoral candidate and leader of the popular opposition, Alexei Navalny. He omits the self-same superficial sheen, leaving us ignorant of the true motive behind that publicity projecting, media-savvy visage. Dmitri shares this enigmatic countenance, meaning we are never quite sure to what extent he is back to screw the authorities or just Kolya´s wife, Lilya. No film is complete without a love triangle, but at least Leviathan´s is judiciously selected. Yelena Lyadova offsets the vodka-gluuging, Kalashnikov-carrying male leads elegantly. Lyadova´s Lilya looks like a brunette Rosamund Pike. The plot transforms into a Russian rendering of Gone Girl as Lilya´s lilting life takes a tragic turn.
The theme of truth alongside the power of portraiture is reconciled beautifully in the use of photos sprinkled around Kolya´s home, hanging over him as he wakes up hung over or reaches for yet another drink. On rising from bed, the camera indulges in a static shot of Lilya´s smiling face in happier days, and lingers long upon the lost youth of Dmitri and Kolya´s army photo, which Kolya stumbles past: the boys stare out gloriously fixed in time and frame. The photos provide their subjects with a ghoulish afterlife that haunts Kolya within the prison of his own, lonely home. They are visual ripples, reverberating in the mind, reminding him of the agony of his reality: abandoned by both Lilya and Dmitri in a home with barely squatter´s rights against the great bear of Russian authority.
Zvyagintsev finally offers the key to unlock the intricate connection between truth and photography. The payoff comes as a haggard Kolya walks and talks with the parish priest. The priest relates the Old Testament tale of Job who challenged god only to have the truth of the world divulged to him in pictures. Leviathan does not stretch itself to quite such an extent. Instead, the film returns to its opening of breakers striking the craggy cliffs of the headland. Mother Russia, in all her splendid magnitude stretching ever Eastwards towards the horizon, stands firm against the tidal wave. The one and only truth in the Russian Federation is this vast, cavernous expanse. The enormous splendour of Mother Russia.