At the New Zealand International Film Festival: two imposing Cannes winners explore the struggle between family, state and religion.
While Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev missed out on the Palme d’Or this year, instead taking home the Best Screenplay award (with co-writer Oleg Negin) for Leviathan, he wasn’t far behind the competition’s supreme winner, Winter Sleep. Working with a similar level of rigour and harnessing uniquely beautiful locations, Zvyagintsev offers his own view on power imbalance with this small town David-vs-Goliath tale. Unlike Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film, though, his protagonist comes from the other side of the tracks.
Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) lives an unassuming working life with his wife and school-aged son in a small fishing town on a peninsula on the Barents Sea North of St. Petersburg. We meet him picking up an old army buddy Dimitri (now a lawyer in Moscow) from the train station. Kolya has called him in as a last resort to try and halt the compulsory acquisition of his seaside property by the local greedy mayor Vadim. (I could not help but think, especially in the court scenes, of the attempted compulsory acquisition of Darryl Kerrigan’s home in broad 1997 Australian comedy The Castle—probably the least likely cinematic comparison available!) As you would expect, this situation brings to bear high levels of stress in the family circle. Kolya’s wife Lilya (Elena’s Elena Lyadova) wants to cut their losses and leave town but Kolya, who doesn’t know any other way of life and whose pride can’t bear the thought of simply rolling over, wants to stay and fight the injustice. Stuck in the middle and not really understanding the magnitude of events Roma—his son of a previous relationship—pushes his frustration onto Lilya. From this unpromising start the story takes turn after turn for the worse, unsurprising once you realise the film is based on the story of Job from the Old Testament.
Much like Job, Kolya receives advice and support from several quarters which all prove ineffectual when dealing with the corrupt mechanism of the State. Attempts to force a stay of action, both by rule of law and by attempting to fight fire (political corruption) with fire (extortion and threats of exposing dirty laundry) bear rotten fruit putting Kolya and co. at risk and at odds with each other. Zvyagintsev paints a scene of complete societal complicity via the unholy union of church and state, Mayor Vadim having the direct support of the regional Orthodox bishop who views the man’s office as ordained by God. In one scene the non-religious Kolya, at a loss for where to turn next, receives advice from a well-intentioned local Orthodox priest who poignantly quotes a passage from chapter 41 of the book of Job all about the titular Leviathan. Sections of this same passage were also quoted in the 2012 maritime documentary of the same name. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s film quoted from the latter half of the chapter, referring to the impacts of Leviathan’s (equals mankind’s) passing. By contrast Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin’s Priest quotes from the opening part of the chapter speaking to the futility of going up against such a beast:
“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?…
If you lay a hand on it,
you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
Any hope of subduing it is false;
the mere sight of it is overpowering.”
It seems to me that the filmmakers use the Leviathan as a metaphor for the implacable Russian ‘system’; it doesn’t matter how just Kolya’s cause may be, there is no escaping the systemic structures of power within which he must operate. They also have a very useful visual aid in the impressive beached and (sun) bleached skeleton of a long dead whale. Leviathan, indeed!
Compared with his debut The Return, the Russian director’s most recent feature is more narratively dense and not as formally tight, yet with its sprawling scope and occasionally scenery chewing characters—guns and alcohol anybody?—Leviathan finds a rhythm which works to deliver its heavy thematic load with a certain lyricism.
In an idyllic locale slowly descending into the coolness of a deepening winter, local landowner and businessman Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) finds the various elements of his life quickly overheating. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep patiently unspools, moving from beautifully framed natural scenery into extended periods of increasingly taut dialogue between (chiefly) Aydin and various other parties, then back out into contemplation of its Anatolian context again. A retired actor, our protagonist is no stranger to drama. Though he protests his involvement in various family and community fracas, he indeed seems to court them. Feeling trapped, his younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) does her best to avoid his company as much as possible in a resentful game of cat-and-mouse while she organises charity fundraiser events to fill her time. Aside from his alternately supportive or acerbic sister Necla (Demet Akba?) who is staying with them, we find Aydin mostly surrounded by employees, tenants, and guests of the magnificent cave-like hotel complex he owns and in which he lives. It is telling that Aydin views his approach to his myriad problems as dialectical but is blind to the ways in which his actual behaviour does not match his intellectualised ideals. Where he sees a sometimes put upon benevolent citizen, his social subservients see a landlord who abdicates responsibility for decisions that will see them lose their home, or a controlling, patronising husband, or an employer who treats employees as servants.
As dialogue scenes heat up, the film becomes more and more reminiscent of a Farhadi drama (no mean comparison), only Ceylan always leaves more (visual, narrative, and temporal) space around each interaction. Like the exemplary Once Upon a Time in Anatolia before it, Winter Sleep follows a meticulous rhythmic structure. Where the former was built upon individual character tales acting as framework for the overarching ‘Anatolian tale’, the latter has the feel of a series of long, deep cinematic breaths. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, and so on. Housed within this structure is the story of a privileged individual whose life is held up against other characters of variously less fortune and standing than he. In doing this, the director highlights the socio-economic divide in Turkey which mirrors widening extremes in inequity of wealth and power worldwide. One need only look at the recent Nigel Latta New Zealand television special The New Haves and Have Nots to see these same issues rearing their heads in our own neighbourhood. Or better yet, simply look in our neighbourhoods.
Winter Sleep deserves its plaudits—there a few films as rigorously constructed and beautifully shot on screens at present—but for all this it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia which I find to be a more singular experience. Regardless, it would be a foolhardy cinephile who would consider missing a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film at this stage of his filmmaking career.