Leviathan

leviathanI saw Leviathan today, it’s quite a thought-provoking film. There’s this axiological paradox, revolving around the notions of vice, virtue and innocence. I haven’t read either Hobbes’ or Auster’s Leviathan – nor did I know about the Book of Job, from the Old Testament, until I looked up the film on Wikipedia. Apparently it’s a modern reworking of this text. But still, I could sense that the film was rich in allusions and symbolism.

The main characters are Kolia, a quick-tempered man prone to drinking; his young, beautiful and frustrated wife Lilya; Dima, Kolia’s friend from the army, a smart and attractive lawyer from Moscow; and Vadim, the corrupt mayor who has set his eyes on Kolia’s inherited family property.

We see the skeleton of a beached whale several times in the film, and the priest asks the grief-stricken Kolia “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish hook?” I thought in the priest’s question the Leviathan represented fate – something over which we have no control. But the hollowed-out skeleton (of the whale, i.e., fate) seems to be Kolia’s pitiful share of it.

Lilya and Vadim appear to be opposite characters, and religion, I felt, provided a parallel universe in the backdrop, but one which doesn’t cross paths with the world of “facts.” I could hear the word “fact” (факт) coming up quite often in the dialogues. (I understand the word “reality” was also used quite often, but I couldn’t catch what it sounds like.) Dima the lawyer, for example, when asked whether he believes in God (once by Vadim and once by Lilya) answers in an aloof manner that he’s a lawyer and he believes in facts. Facts are important for a legal case, of course. In a previous scene, Kolia’s friend was solving a crossword puzzle, trying to find the word for “evolution” – the definition asked for Darwin’s theory. Now that also has to do with “facts.” Those are in stark contrast with the theological narrative, from the mouths of the two priests. In the final scene Vadim – devil incarnate – whispers to his son in church that “God sees everything.” I don’t want to be contesting that here, but the film wants us to think about such things.

The senior priest whom Vadim frequently visits – he looks like a wise old man, but I don’t know, is he too naive to notice Vadim’s reprehensible nature, or is he simply pretending not to understand, given that Vadim is a regular donor to the church? (Vadim is trying to “buy” his peace of mind, something that Lilya can’t afford.) He says that power is God’s blessing, and Vadim can justify all means for that end in his worldly affairs. Even I, with several years of teaching and exam invigilation, can tell that those fidgety hands and that worried look with elusive eyes bode no good.

One final comment on the translation: I was somewhat startled at the scene where a young priest asks Kolia about “Eyüp,” (in the Turkish subtitling) in front of the convenience store, as if he’s referring to a mutual – Turkish! – friend. I think, for stylistic purposes, he wanted to drop the name casually as if he could be talking about anybody and but it turned out that he was talking about Job from the Old Testament. Presumably, the message he wanted to convey was that the Bible is still relevant today and we could turn to it for guidance but that doesn’t carry across very well in translation, it’s culturally disorienting since that’s a name in Turkish. I think I’d translate that as “Eyüp Peygamber,” Prophet Job, the way we call the Biblical character, at the expense of the priest’s enigmatic word game.

I also loved the nature scenes in the film, somewhat alluding to the Creation of the Earth. As Peter Bradshaw says, “key scenes and moments occur agonisingly off-screen,” so no violence depicted, and those images of beautiful serenity will stay with me.

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