leviathan: religion and state in russia

Religion is a nasty animal in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan.

Late in the film an orthodox priest, when confronted by the recently widowed Kolya, who despairingly questions the omnipotence of God in the aftermath of his wife’s death, responds to Kolya by quoting Job chapter 41, Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? God asks Job, Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words?

The verse comes at the head of a long jumble of questions God asks Job after Job confronts God with his unbearable losses. God goes on to remind Job, after countless exhortations of Leviathan’s power, “Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.”

Unsurprisingly, Job repents and submit himself to God, or Leviathan’s? control and the priest exhorts Kolya to do the same. To go to confession. To bear his fate, which for Kolya in Leviathan, is not neglibile.

The film could be, and in some ways is, the story of Job, but in Zvyagintsev’s retelling, set in a Northern province of modern day Russia, Kolya’s Job has not only religion, but the state it supports, to contend with.

It’s a bold move, offering audiences, in a title, such a hint, as to what might lurk inside a film’s running time, to so aggressively assert the contents of your story using a word that arrives laden with centuries of baggage, but what country could be better positioned to illustrate Leviathan’s multiple connotations than Russia.

I won’t waste time on plot summary, suffice to say the film’s characters are each equally compelling, and each equally unhappy. Kolya is a working-class mechanic who happens to own waterfront property coveted by his town’s Mayor, who, true to form, has developed an airtight legal case which will strip Kolya of his property. Despite an ill-fated attempt by a friend, who happens to be a lawyer, to turn the government’s engine of corruption back on itself, Kolya loses his land, and, in the process, much more.

It’s a brutal film to watch, made even more so by Zvyagintsev’s compelling use of Vadim’s relationship with the man who appears to be the head of the region’s orthodox church. We see him at times accepting bribes from Vadim and at others assuring him “All power is from God” and “Where there is power, there is might,” tacitly, or implicitly, I’m unsure which, condoning Vadim’s illicit corruption and assuaging his unshakeable guilt.

It all reads as it seems Zvyagintsev intended, not as a parable, or warning, as it certainly could have, but as a despairing illustration of what is, for many, truly reality; the result of two forms of institutionalized power and what could be the result of their collusion.

Thomas Hobbes, one of political theories greatest minds surprised readers when his theory of man’s journey from the state of nature to a contractually based society ended in the notion of the sovereign. Hobbes’ Leviathan sounded an awful lot like England’s King and Hobbes, in all of his enlightened brilliance offered to European rulers the power of philosophy and reason in place of the recently reneged authority of God, which up until 17th and 18th centuries had been the basis of power.

In Leviathan, our hapless hero encounters the 21st century amalgamation of enlightenment political theory and religion. A two-headed beast which surpasses even the leviathan in its power and reach. Not content to win, only content with utter destruction of its enemies. I don’t know enough about life in 21st century Russia to know how a story such as Leviathan tells affects its inhabitants, although I hear it’s not an inaccurate portrayal of Russian politics, if perhaps, as art is wont, over-exaggerated in its brutality.

But I recently had an interesting conversation concerning the role of religion in a country which had its religion forcibly suppressed for decades, a country rather resilient, at least in the early 20th century, to European secular humanism.

The church has incontrovertible influence in Zvyagintsev’s interpretation, at least inasmuch as it lends it’s moral support to support the state’s power, something we might find hard to relate to in the West, the role of the church having been denied or repressed for so many years now.

But is it difficult to fathom in Russia? Could religion be the hero as it returns to the stage after it’s suppression? And could the power that goes hand in hand with its embrace, power which has been used for evil too many times to mention, continue, and, even in an age of the Leviathan state (albeit an unacknowledged Leviathan state), be necessary?

Tyrants, from time immemorial, have required religion (or it’s appropriate stand-in) to assuage their guilt, fears, or uncertainties; to provide them with moral support, the necessity of which I’ll leave for those more intelligent than myself to argue. It’s not, however, unreasonable to think, in my estimation, that in a country wracked by tumultuous transition, as Russia has for the last century, it would not be welcomed back, it’s authority unquestioned. Ripe ground on which the powerful build their foundation.

Religion is a tyrant, but only one of the tyrants Russians face in Zvyagintsev’s telling.

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