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

Screenshot 2015-10-30 at 8.29.45 AM

This is PART ONE of a three-part feature. See my previous post for the full Introduction.

*WARNING*: Because this essay is concerned with how specific recurring themes/images relate to the development of a film’s narrative arc, it necessarily contains plot spoilers.

The Return

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 and Elena 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 Return‘s opening shot of the sunken boat—echoed in Leviathan—is paired with a follow-up scene of young Ivan (Ivan Fyodorovich Dobronravov), clinging fearfully to the railing of what looks like a makeshift lighthouse, from which the older boys are diving into the ocean. Though the implication is that some humans are just not strong enough to withstand elemental forces, the outcome of the film urges us not to make exceptions.

Initially, Ivan, the youngest son, is presented as the most vulnerable—slim and diminutive, afraid of heights and the motives of this man (Konstantin Lavronenko) calling himself “Dad.” Early in the film, both Ivan and Andrei (Vladimir Garin) are introduced to their father, who had apparently left them some years before, though neither of them remembers him. The older, bolder brother Andrei, while at times protective of Ivan, strives to imitate the rugged, coolly detached demeanour of his father, and cannot fathom why Ivan is so headstrong, so suspicious, and so resentful towards the father’s gestures of goodwill.

As they are getting ready to depart on their fishing trip, Ivan asks, “Where did he come from?” Andrei responds, “He just came.” A similar exchange happens with his mother, and Ivan gets the same response: “He just came.” The father thinks it’s natural to be called “Dad,” but we understand why the boy does not: his father is an unknown entity, a mystery, and therefore something to be feared—particularly because of his demand to be given the authority of “father” without precedent.

And Ivan turns out to be correct in his suspicions, although we never find out why the father had returned or where he had been: what is certain is that the father wants complete obedience, and no questions asked. He is quick to violence, and deals it out on several occasions when either son contradicts him. We can see how, in the later films, Zvyagintsev has developed this sort of conflict into a rich allegory for the larger authoritarian figure of Russia, of the supreme leader—though, in The Return, we are likely reaching a bit for such a double narrative.

Nevertheless, as the story progresses, it is clear that the natural landscape, and the father’s ability to navigate it, provides a model for masculinity, so important in Russian culture. We are even led to suspect that he is engaging in a number of shady deals (reinforced by a series of clandestine meetings), and yet the fishing trip itself will be enough for the father to prove his superiority and weed out the slackers—that is, Ivan.

Moreover, Zvyagintsev shows us that the family environment always gains a new perspective within the context of the physical environment. Of course, as it turns out, the father is just as vulnerable as his sons to such a reality. This notion is supported through the many scenes of crumbled structures and eroded landscapes: yes, humans make an impact on nature, but nature itself rolls on, unimpeded by human progress. This point is driven home during the climactic sojourn on an island—a Crusoe-like expedition, which Andrei likely embraces as an opportunity to impress his father, who seems unperturbed by inclement weather or a malfunctioning motor on the boat they build from scratch. Ivan remains his usual taciturn self, refusing to eat anything the father prepares or participate in any activity he suggests.

In this sequence we find the father digging for some buried treasure in the earthen floor of a decrepit home; and then, in a later episode, the sons, out from under the stern gaze of Dad, venturing off the island to a half-sunk vessel. The father’s authority is weakening, implied when, after the boys are late returning to shore, he slaps Andrei in the face several times: his own verbal commands have no impact. But even his physical assault—which matches his apparent mastery of the elements—proves ineffective as the boys literally escape his grip. Ivan, of all people, bravely climbs a towering structure, similar to the one he fears in the opening of the film; in an attempt to reach Ivan at the top, the father climbs up the tower, but ironically—or appropriately?—falls to his death after the slat of wood he’s holding onto breaks, evidently rotted. Even a violent, evil force like Dad is no match for the elements.

Stay tuned for Part Two of the essay, which will focus on Elena…

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