“King over all that is proud”: Nature vs the Humans in the Films of Andrey Zvyagintsev (Introduction)


Andrey Zvyagintsev has four feature films to date: The Return (2003), The Banishment (2007), Elena (2011), and Leviathan (2014). The most recent of these was first released in Russia in May 2014, and in the West in February 2015; so, as far as anniversaries go, I’m either too late or too early. But, no matter: Zvyagintsev is establishing himself as one of the most important filmmakers in contemporary Russian cinema, and his films (especially his older ones) deserve another look.


Though Zvyagintsev mentioned in his interview with Cineaste last year that he believes in God, he also added that he has his “natural doubts,” particularly when it comes to the dictates of the Russian Orthodox Church, which gets satirical treatment in Zvyagintsev’s critically acclaimed Leviathan (2014). In that film, a character working on a crossword puzzle provides an example of such “natural” alternatives to the institutionalized “God.” Stephanych, the character in question, wonders what nine-letter word might fit “Darwin’s term for directional and irreversible development of life.” After a few seconds, he offers “E-vo-lu-tion. It fits.”

In many of his films, Andrey Zvyagintsev situates human beings as sometimes fragile, sometimes powerful forces in nature. Leviathan is only the latest film to explore this motif. Both The Return (2003) and Elena (2012) examine the struggle of an individual against an oppressive larger system, though the human-made structures turn out to be no match for “irreversible” Nature.

The debut film The Return first established the director’s grand theme of Nature as a great leveler. Mikhail Krichman, who has done the cinematography for all of Zvyagintsev’s films to date, depicts a slate-grey world of endless ocean, which is the setting for a conflict between a formidable patriarch and his two sons. (See Andrew O’Hehir’s Salon review, which discusses Krichman’s cinematography.) Elena is set entirely in an urban space, though Zvyagintsev’s skilled directing highlights the position of humans as potentially volatile forces within the natural environment.

With Leviathan, we are once again in the landscape of The Return, but unlike Elena, Leviathan proves that evolution and the inscrutable forces of nature trump anything humans might seek to accomplish. In this most recent film, Zvyagintsev offers a comforting—if melancholy—truth that history and the slow but inexorable movement of time will ultimately triumph over the corrupt individuals who find themselves king over the world for a brief spell.

Stay tuned for Part One of the essay, which will focus on The Return…


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