By Lawrence A. Uzzell
“Leviathan” is the most important recent film from Russia…
….Ponder a car mechanic owning a SUV, a repair garage and a house several times bigger than the average Russian’s home. The film depicts Nikolai as fixing his friends’ cars for free. How he had become a successful businessman in his poverty-stricken village? What had been the source for his income?
Perhaps Nikolai has his own methods of corruption, not explicitly stated in the film. I could easily believe that in many countries, including America. But if so, why his wife Lilia has a such stinking (literally) job in the local fish factory? Lilia’s fellow worker and girlfriend Angela with her traffic-cop husband Pasha are entirely credible. Nikolai and Lilia are not.
I really wanted to like this film. Corrupt politicians, corrupt bureaucrats and corrupt bishops are hugely important facts of life in current Russia. There is no need to exaggerate. Unfortunately “Leviathan” commits several howlers. (If you dislike plot spoilers, stop reading at this point.)
The real chances of the Russian Orthodox Church’s seizing an individual family’s house are probably zero. If such an scenario were actually to happen, you can be sure that the many critics of the church would rightly and loudly denounce it in Russia. It has not happened. The closest events in genuine Russian history have been seizures of Roman Catholic and Protestant church buildings now in the hands of the Russian Church. Those land-grabs were committed by the Soviet state decades ago; only later the Orthodox bishops became the indirect beneficiaries. The bishops in those cases should be seen not as thieves but as fences — far from saints but also far from this film’s depiction. In the current mood of opinion neither Moscow nor Hollywood wants to highlight western Christian churches as victims.
(To be absolutely precise, there has been at least one post-Soviet case when an Orthodox monastery evicted lay residents from their homes. Those buildings were on land originally belonged to that monastery before 1917; the church was demanding to recover its own property — quite different from fictional Nikolai’s ancestral house.)
Important for this film is another piece of Russian history, the 1990s reconstruction of Moscow’s huge Cathedral of Christ the Saviour ( pictured right ) not in any alleged parallels but rather in key dissimilarities. The Orthodox sought not to steal somebody else’s property but to recover their own pre-1917 churches demolished by the Soviet regime. The hyper-rush, hyper-expensive cathedral project was actually the Moscow mayor’s brainchild, not the bishops’ in the 1990s. The Russian Church’s top leadership behaved in its typical servility to the Soviet and post-Soviet secular state — far from being the dominant partner. “Leviathan” reverses reality — depicting the local mayor as the junior partner and the local bishop as the top boss. In the characters’ words and body language the film should have given the alpha-male role to the mayor, not to the bishop.
I love the film’s symbols, both verbal and visual, of a ruthless leviathan partly inspired by the British philosopher Hobbes. Unfortunately the screenplay depicts a Russian priest mangling the Old Testament. Nikolai the car mechanic is indeed a Job figure, but an authentic Orthodox priest would never describe Job’s wife as trying to knock sense into her suffering husband. In the Bible she, not he, was ready to provoke God’s wrath.
Thus this film is seriously flawed.
If you want an honest Russian film about church-state relations, try “Tsar” (2009) — available via YouTube with English subtitles. Sadly, both Moscow and Hollywood provide too few fair-minded movies featuring religion.
Mr. Uzzell is a semi retired anti- Jacobin activist who lives near Staunton Virginia.