Tuesday, 29 July 2014


I’m consumed by the Film Festival – what wealth for the mind to chomp on! Just home from Leviathan by Russian AndreyZvyaginstev, that had rave reviews from Cannes 2014.
Don’t you just love it when a word drives you to the dictionary!
I did know Leviathan had connotations of ‘whale’ and is the name of political philosopher Thomas Hobbes greatest book (the latter because the Film Festival booklet told me so). 
To quote the booklet, Hobbes says without good government and an organised society, life would be ‘nasty, brutish and short’.
Well, armed with the booklet’s blurb, off I trotted to the movies with my friend.
I wasn’t at all prepared for the austere allegory that unfolded in such mythical proportions and its deeply contemplative cinematography. I certainly hadn’t bargained for watching the main character turn into, step by relentless step, a biblical Job as he was stripped of everything everyman or everywoman might hold dear. All with a few good laughs along the way.

 So when I came home I dived into google to better understand the word Leviathan’, as well as to fathom the meaning of ‘allegory’.
Leviathan is indeed a monster of the sea. Melville in his novel Moby Dick talks of the white whale in these terms. 

But the deeper meanings lie within an ancient Jewish tradition that is treated at length in the Book of Job.
If you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
Any hope of subduing him is false; the mere sight of him is overpowering.
No-one is fierce enough to rouse him. Who then is able to stand against me?

And then we also have the Leviathan of the Christians in the  Middle Ages, who used this idea to describe Satan who  endangered  both God's creatures—by attempting to eat them—and God's creation—by threatening it with upheaval in the waters of Chaos.(Wikipaedia)
So the concept of a Leviathan is scarey stuff!

Allegory is a word I’ve always found hard to define. But good old Wikipaedia tells us it is an art form in whose characters and events represent ideas and concepts. ‘ it’s immense power is to illustrate complex ideas and concepts in ways that are easily digestible and tangible to its viewers’ …. It acts like an extended metaphor.

In the film, contemporary Russia with its corrupt politicians, police and priests populate the story of a poor man and his friends. All the characters feel fully realized. However they are also ciphers that hold bigger ideas. The personal is very political, yet metaphysical too. While the cruel Fates toy with individual lives, the director delights in black social comedy and utilises a classic thriller formula. Danger stalks many scenes but always comes in when we – or the characters - might expect it least. The social mores of these northerners were laid open like a knife cutting through flesh. The gender constructs of what it means to be a man or woman were appalling from a feminist Kiwi’s viewpoint. Guns, vodka and casual domestic violence were the order of the day.

Revealing the older ideas behind Leviathan, means we as an audience can come  to understand that any individuals who dare attempt to resist the powers of a monster corrupt state and church will definitely come to no good. This film contemplates the dis-empowerment of the little people by the Leviathan of the greater system that is Putin’s Russia.
Tragedy reels under the foreboding and forbidding quarries of a northern fishing town, on the shores of the wild writhing Barrents Sea.  This allegory is a poetic, cinematic journey that is driven by ferocious rage and visionary grandeur. This is a masterpiece of movie-making that will reverberate in my consciousness for a long while.
Postscript: It’s deeply ironic that given the Jewish ancestry of the concept of Leviathan, Israel has become a modern Leviathan against which the embattled Palestinians are fighting. The ghastly, tragic genocidal war being waged in Gaza against an entire people can be seen as an extended metaphor of the story of an Arabic Job being waged by the implacable Chosen People.

1 comment:

  1. Oooo I'm so sad film festival not coming to ChCh, this sounds like my kind of film, and told well too. It was great to hear about your research, Fern, I have always associated Leviathan with the gentle, intelligent beast of the deep, the whale, and not really thought of it in the context of oppressive governmental organisations. But of course it is far more complex and scary than that -- it's a mythological beast! And I should have known better because I read -- and thoroughly enjoyed and recommend -- the young adult novel, 'Leviathan' by Scott Westerfeld. Steampunk, and fantastically illustrated, the Leviathan of the title is a GM airship-whale piloted by a girl, in a retelling of the story of WW1. GM beasts are used by the British, mechanical-fantastical beasts by the Germans. Great story! I love that a myth is an extended metaphor - I'm going to enjoy your blog!