Frequent readers know that we just love the Australian comedy film "The Castle," which tells the tale of one man's legal fight to save his family's home from the abusive exercise of eminent domain power. (See "Kelo Down Under," our review.) The case is played for laughs and in the end, the homeowner naturally prevails, the private benefit is quashed by Australia's High Court, and all's well that ends well.
Those of us who practice this kind of law understand that real life doesn't always -- or even often -- work out the way it does in the movies: the good guys may not always prevail, and even when things are looking up, the road ahead may be filled with many unexpected bumps and turns.
So it is in "Leviathan," the latest film from Russia's Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Not that we would expect a film set in a bleak fishing village in the country's starkly beautiful far north to be quirky and upbeat like The Castle. Especially where the trigger setting the events in motion is a thoroughly corrupt mayor's abuse of the municipality's eminent domain power to confiscate the home that Kolya built with his own hands, for a use that isn't revealed until the final frames, but which we presume is far from a public good ("your palace," spits Kolya to the Mayor).
He vows to stay and fight, while the Mayor covets the property because it's "[a] spot with great potential, close to the center, by the sea." He promises to crush the "louse" Kolya with the power of the state, all the while being counseled by the parish priest that he is doing God's work. The title refers to both the biblical Leviathan (Kolya's problems, like Job's, only worsen as the film progresses), and Hobbes' book justifying the all-powerful state. Kolya, an iconoclast in land of odd and damaged characters, is committed to resisting the powers of God and the oppressive Russian state.
The film opens with Kolya's former army buddy Dmitriy, now a smooth Moscow lawyer, arriving in town to argue his case, and who -- knowing how things really work -- brings along more in his attache case than just legal briefs. He understands that in post-Soviet Russia, the law only goes so far, and that raw power must still be met with raw power. He counsels Kolya and his wife Lilya that although he doesn't expect to win the appeal in the local courts, he has the goods on the Mayor. After his prediction comes to pass in one of the most absurdly comic courtroom scenes in recent memory -- the judge reads aloud the appellate court's judgment affirming the taking and the meager compensation in a nonstop spiel seemingly without pausing for breath, impressing upon Kolya, Lilya, and us that resistance is futile -- Dmitriy and the Mayor meet, the goods are revealed, and the Mayor agrees to up the compensation.
But unlike The Castle, Leviathan doesn't finish on that upbeat note. We won't reveal the remainder, but suffice it to say that Kolya's eminent domain problems are supplanted by additional travails, and before the film has ended, we understand his despair, as well as that of Lilya and Dmitriy.
Leviathan confirms Hobbes' observation that the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," but leaves little doubt that the filmmaker hardly agrees with Hobbes' conclusion that the supremacy of the state is the answer, even if the cost of fighting it is dear.
But if the bulldozing of Kolya and Lilya's home and the crushing of their spirits is the price of "reawakening the soul of the Russian people" as the priest sermonizes, Leviathan also leaves little doubt that the price may be too great to bear.
Leviathan. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. With Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, and Roman Madyanov. 140 minutes.