Readers of this space are familiar with my attachment to The Book of Job. My personal favorite “double feature feature” film pairing was anchored by a discussion of how each film – “The Tree of Life” and “A Serious Man” – related to that masterwork of religious philosophy.
Well, if I wanted to, I could now revise that piece to a triple feature feature – because one of the more powerful films of the past year is the Oscar-nominated Russian film, “Leviathan,” from director Andrey Zvyagintsev – and guess what? At its heart, this movie is also a meditation on Jobian themes.
The story of the film is simple. A fairly ordinary Russian man, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), denizen of a town on the Barents Sea coast, is facing the loss of his property. Using whatever the Russian equivalent of eminent domain, the corrupt local mayor (Roman Madyanov) plans to summarily kick Kolya off the land he and his family have lived on for decades. Kolya is convinced that the mayor plans to build himself a palace on the land, and is determined to do whatever is necessary to keep what is his. More specifically, he invites his old army buddy, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a Moscow lawyer, to come up and not-so-subtly threaten the mayor with exposure of his many misdeeds if he doesn’t back off – or at least offer a fair market rate of compensation to Kolya for the loss of his valuable beachfront property.
At first, it looks like the plan is going relatively well. The mayor is intimidated by the august names Dmitriy casually drops, and even more intimidated by the dossier he has compiled. Though he rages at his flunkies, his rage feels impotent – he’s clearly seriously considering caving, at least on the point of compensation.
But the local bishop (sounding very like a proponent of the “Orthodox Jihad” that Rod Dreher talked about on his blog) tells him, in so many words, to gird up his loins like a man. God gave you any power or authority you may have. If you are using it for God’s ends, you should not flinch, doubt or hesitate – because it was for these ends that you were entrusted power in the first place. At the same time, Kolya’s camp unravels with startling rapidity. His young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), sleeps with Dmitriy, and is caught in the act by Kolya’s son, her stepson. Kolya beats him up, and before Dmitriy has recovered from these injuries he finds himself threatened by the mayor’s goons. Dmitriy flees back to Moscow, leaving Lilya to her guilt and Kolya to face the mayor’s wrathful vengeance alone. And, if you can believe it, this is only the beginning of Kolya’s troubles.
Why does Lilya cheat on her husband? Her actions are never really explained, but my sense is that we are supposed to see Dmitriy through her eyes as Kolya’s natural superior. He’s younger, better-looking, smarter. He’s also the true savior of the family if the family is to find one – Kolya cannot save them himself. He is a man who, he says, believes in facts, in objective reality – he is not deluded that God is going to engineer an outcome that sentiment might favor. If we are to see the world in that way – which is how Kolya, defying the “righteous” authority of the mayor, implicitly does – is Dmitriy not a more appropriate man to cleave to than Kolya? That’s my sense of what her actions signify. And in the end they leave her utterly lost.
In the depths, facing the loss of everything he ever cared about, and facing yet further loss to come, Kolya turns to a priest, who tells him the story of Job as a parable of obvious relevance to Kolya’s life. “To whom do you pray?” he asks him – this, to the priest is the decisive question. He offers Kolya no answers, but only a choice: whose authority do you accept, as total and absolute? Kolya doesn’t see the point of praying at all if there is no promise of reward – the reward that Job received, at the end of the biblical book. And so he goes to meet his end with no consolation.
The foregoing may make the film sound a bit pat. It isn’t. This is a film rich in life, from the stunning cinematography (by Mikhail Krichman), to the powerful ensemble acting, to the painful cross-currents of these characters lives (particularly the fault line that divides stepmother from stepson), to the humor provided by the ensemble of peripheral characters, particularly a corrupt police officer who leans on Kolya for free repairs of his truck, and Lilya’s mouthy best friend from the local fish packing plant. One can appreciate the film fully without paying any attention to the way in which it uses the philosophical and theological themes that I’m focusing on.
But I’m going to focus on them anyway, because they interest and move me – and because I love the Book of Job too much from them not to.
“Leviathan” presents a fairly bleak reading of the Book of Job, one that emphasizes the absolute and unfathomable scope of God’s power and authority. Faced with such awesome majesty, the only proper attitude is utter submission, with which the reservation of any personal pride or status is incompatible. It is, frankly, a reading that doesn’t sit well with me. But then, I am disinclined to identify divine authority with any temporal, human authority, whether the state, religious authorities, or my own conscience (and I, like any good scholar but also like the devil, can cite scripture to my purpose if I’m so inclined). That, indeed, is precisely part of the point I take from God’s voice from the whirlwind: God’s authority is different from, incommensurate with temporal, human authority. Human authorities you may critique for being unjust, and demand satisfaction of them. Human authority proceeds from and may be bound by and shaped by positive law, because it aims at the satisfaction of human ends, like fairness and justice. But to demand these things of God is to making a category error. You cannot critique a whirlwind.
I don’t see the whirlwind demanding submission – I see it urging Job to raise his eyes, not lower them. When the Book of Job talks of Behemoth and Leviathan, I imagine quasars and black holes, the monsters of physics; I imagine a universe of laws, but laws the depths of which will never be sounded to the bottom. I am, I suppose, more like Dmitriy than not.
But in the context of autocracy, which has deep roots in Russian soil, the priest’s interpretation has perhaps more resonance. What does the voice from the whirlwind sound like to a mind conditioned to understand law as proceeding from authority rather than the other way around? From such a mind’s perspective, the only way to know the law is to know whether authority is righteous, meaning whether it aims at ends that God approves. Which is precisely how the bishop tutors the mayor. And from such a mind’s perspective, the thuggish, abusive, cruel mayor is in fact more humble than poor, suffering, Job-like Kolya.
That, to my mind, is the point of the ending, which reveals that the mayor was indeed, from a certain perspective, aiming to serve God’s ends. Many Western viewers are reading the film as a satiric story of corruption in modern Russia. But perhaps this is not the only way to read it. Indeed, perhaps it is not the way that Russia’s Ministry of Culture originally read it – which would explain why they initially supported the film, facilitated its financing and production, and promoted it internationally, only to turn on it when they saw it described in the Western press as a critique of Putinism. Because, with just a little turn of the head, the film can be read not as an indictment, but instead as a tragedy, the very tragedy that Hobbes identified when he first contemplated the problem of authority: that, once you establish the necessity of authority as your bedrock political principle, you immediately establish the necessity of absolutism, and the impossibility of any formal reservation for the individual against that authority.