Sunday, January 11, 2015

Leviathan (orig. Левиафан) [2014]

MPAA (R)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing listing* listing* listing* listing* listing* (V. Lyaschenko) review* (N. Karcev) review* (L. Malyukova) review* (V. Kitchin) review*

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
Cine Para Leer review*
CineVue (J. Bleasdale) review (A.W. Murray) review
Slant Magazine (C. Bowen) review
Variety (P. DeBruge) review

Leviathan (orig. Левиафан) [2014]  [IMDb] []*[]*[]* (directed and cowritten by  Andrey Zvyagintsev [IMDb] []*[]*[]* along with Oleg Negin [IMDb] []*[]*[]*) promises to be an absolute darling to Western Liberals.

Yes, the story set in a small picturesque Russian town somewhere on the Arctic coast (and yes, the scenery is often breathtaking) is at least initially about corruption in contemporary Russia:

A lowly fisherman / auto-mechanic named Nicolay (played by Aleksey Serebryakov [IMDb] []*[]*) with a simple fisherman's house that he inherited from his father, finds to his horror that the local mayor (played by Roman Madyanov [IMDb] []*[]*) has come to covet said house for the only covetable quality that is has -- a view.  So he's decided to use the power of the local government force lowly Nicolay to relinquish said house for an obsenely low price, nominally to allow a "communications center" to be built there (but nobody seriously believes that.  The local mayor just wants to build his own house there).

Now Nicolay isn't completely without friends or resources.  So at the beginning of the film he has his old army buddy, now a hotshot Moscow lawyer, named Dmitri (played by Vladimir Vdovichenkov [IMDb] []*[]*) come up to challenge the confiscation of the house.  Dmitri is, in fact, not naive.  He comes up to the town not only with a legal case to defend Nicolay's claim on the property (or at least that he'd be compensated appropriately), but he ALSO comes with a dossier of dirt collected about the Mayor.  To no one's surprise, Dmitri loses the appeal for Nicolay.  HOWEVER Dmitri's dossier on the mayor does grab the mayor's attention.

What to do?  Well, the mayor goes _to the local Orthodox priest_ for advice.  AND THE ADVICE THAT HE GETS FROM SAID PRIEST IS (I'm not kidding): "Don't be such a baby!  All power comes from God, USE IT."   And so WITH THE PRIEST'S MAFIA-LIKE BLESSING, that's what the mayor does: He gets his thugs together, they pay a visit to the lawyer, drive him out of town and ...

Now tragically before being "driven out of town," the lawyer manages to seduce Nicolay's wife Lilya (played by Elena Lyadova [IMDb] []*[]*) -- Why would he do that?  Were there not enough women in Moscow to sleep with, and Nicolay was supposed to be his friend ... -- which after he "disappears from the scene" causes continued problems between Nicolay and his wife.  Those problems come to provide the Mayor a final / definitive means to simply get rid of Nicolay.

Wonderful, the director himself has stated that his film was inspired by the Biblical Job and the Thomas Hobbes' treatise Leviathan (a giant sea-monster that actually appears at the end of the Biblical Book of Job but in the Hobbesian conception it also represents the Power of the State).

So what's there to object to?  After all, this is (on the surface) a quite brave denunciation of the state of corruption in Russia today.  HOWEVER, note here that ultimate blame for said corruption doesn't fall on the thuggish mayor of the town, BUT ... ON THE ORTHODOX PRIEST (who arguably was just missing a tail and horns in the film).

So this is just catnip for both Western Liberals and perhaps a remnant of the ATHEIST Russian "Old Guard" still pining for the "Law and Order" that existed back in the "Good Old Days" of the Soviet Gulag.  Hence a film nominally about State corruption nonetheless gets funded by the Russian "Ministry of Culture." ;-)

Hmm... There's even a reference to Pussy Riot in the film.  What's going on here? 

I suppose that the question that the film asks is: To what extent is the Russian Orthodox Church complicit in the corruption that exists in Russian society today? 


Well a search of the term коррупция (corruption)* on the Moscow Patriarchate's official website* indicates quite that the challenge of corruption in contemporary Russian society is certainly not "off the radar" or even somehow a "verboten" subject in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church today.  And this really should not surprise anyone (unless one simply insisted on BEGINNING with the assumption that the Russian Orthodox Church, or the Church in general, Christianity and/or Religion in general simply HAD TO BE "EVIL").

Now how well is the Russian Orthodox Church doing in voicing opposition to corruption in Russian society today?  Well that is a fair question and I simply do not know enough about Russia or the actual workings of the Russian Orthodox Church to answer that.  However, let me offer a suggestion:

While there are fanatical groups like SNAP ("Survivors' Network for those Abused by Priests") in the United States who don't seem to recognize _even the possibility_ of a "good Catholic priest" in the United States today (just those who are "guilty" and those who are in "denial"), the National Catholic Reporter has for decades served as a "watch dog" / independent voice seeking to keep the Catholic Church in the United States honest not only with regard to the various priestly sexual abuse scandals but also with regards to its (obviously) FAR LARGER MISSION, notably to "bring good news to the poor."

There is no reason why such a newspaper of website could not exist (or come to exist, IF IT DOES NOT ALREADY, perhaps if need be OUTSIDE OF RUSSIA) that would seek to keep the Russian Orthodox Church accountable in its role as "the conscience of Russian society."  I have personally known plenty of good (AND EDUCATED) Russian Orthodox believers (My own grandfather was Russian Orthodox).  I simply do not believe that a "(Russian) National Orthodox Reporter" would be impossible to create (if it does not de facto exist already).

Would it be enough?  Well the National Catholic Reporter certainly did not prevent the sexual abuse crimes to occur in the United States.  But it did and does remind everyone willing to listen that there are American Catholics who _do actually believe_ and do actually want a Church that's accountable for its actions here on earth.

The Russian Orthodox Church may be being tempted by the same Devil's Bargain that the Catholic Church in the United States has been tempted by the American Right in these years after the sexual abuse scandals:  "We'll support you on such 'beside the point' matters as 'Gays,' just don't say a word anymore about the Economic Justice (or Corruption)."  The problem with that bargain is, of course, if the Church does not stand for the poor and oppressed then its other "teachings" become _meaningless_.    The Church's Power comes from standing-up for the weak:

You shall not oppress or molest a stranger, for you were once strangers residing in the land of Egypt.  You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely listen to their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.  -- Ex 22:20-23

So one could dismiss this film (and in fact the _provocative_ actions of Pussy Riot) as simply a "diatribe against the (Russian Orthodox) Church"  OR ... one could see it as a challenge to the (Russian Orthodox) Church stand-up and FULFILL its job to TRULY BE "The Nation's Conscience."  It seems obvious to me that the more useful / constructive interpretation would be the second one.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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