You don’t have dig particularly deep to find similarities between Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Russian drama Leviathan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish drama Winter Sleep. They were erstwhile competitors across last year’s arthouse awards season; Ceylan took the lead early by picking up the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but Leviathan was more successful in more mainstream awards ceremonies, picking up a Golden Globe win and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film while Winter Sleep went unacknowledged. Purely from a surface level, the films look remarkably similar, using their beautifully photographed, harsh yet picturesque settings – Russian countryside and the Anatolian steppes, respectively, each captured in autumnal colours fading into wintery greys – to stage intricately-observed moral dilemmas.
Leviathan’s dilemma is straightforward in its simplicity; unemployed, vodka-soaked fisherman Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov) faces the repossession and demolition of his home, with corrupt mayor and “fucking tyrant” Vadim (Ronan Madyanov) manipulating legal procedures to obtain the property for his own benefit. Unfolding in a singularly withholding fashion, Zvyagintsev’s purview soon expands beyond local government corruption to a pessimistic portrait of modern cultural institutions: beyond government, the church and legal systems through to friendship and marriage.
The film takes its name from the Biblical story of Job – quoted briefly in the screenplay, in a perhaps unnecessary underlining of the film’s themes – where the immense leviathan represents Job’s powerlessness. Here the leviathan is absolute and omnipresent; it is the hulking, unfeeling beast of modern society. This leviathan’s flesh – its moral foundations – are stripped bare, leaving a bone-white husk that imprisons those within it. Leviathan is undeniably aligned with modern Russian politics – it is impossible to miss the parallels when Vadim is repeatedly framed under a painting of Putin hanging proudly in his mayoral office – but it is more broadly a depiction of a society where notions of fairness, honour and religion have been divested of all meaning. It is, in short, a long way from a feel-good film.
Winter Sleep is similarly cynical of the espoused principles that underlay such institutions, but inverts its perspective. Where Zvyagintsev focuses his story on the ordeals of his Job equivalent, the simple, volatile Kolya, with his antagonist, Vadim, largely a support character, Ceylan is more interested in the motivations and moral equivocation of men like Vadim. Admittedly, Winter Sleep’s protagonist, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), does not possess the financial or political clout of his Leviathan counterpart; he’s a retired actor who now works as a hotel owner, writer and landlord. But it is within this last role that he most closely resembles Vadim, aggravating the suffering of his tenants while continually positioning himself as a moral authority.
Throughout Leviathan we’re occasionally privy to Vadim’s conversations with a priest, where he makes feeble attempts to justify his unquestionably immoral behaviour. Such conversations constitute the majority of Winter Sleep’s runtime, as Aydin bloviates at length with his sister (Demet Akbağ), wife (Melisa Sözen), friend (Tamer Levent) along with a string of his hotel’s lodgers. Despite the gorgeous surrounds, the majority of Winter Sleep’s intimidating 196 minute runtime is spent in candle-lit interiors watching Aydin mansplaining his way through his own personal philosophy (invariably contradicted by his deplorable behaviour). If Leviathan is about what it’s like to be trapped in the belly of the beast, Winter Sleep is an involved lesson in the hypocrisy of the beast itself.
Both films approach greatness. There’s the thin framework of a potential masterpiece lingering around each film, but both suffer from over-explanation in their gradual plunge towards resolution. I found Leviathan the stronger film, by the thinnest of margins, based on its comparative restraint. It dances around over-explanation of its themes in its final quarter but largely succeeds in provoking reflection rather than lecturing; Winter Sleep, perhaps by virtue of its extensive runtime, circles the same themes one time too many, and much like Aydin himself, ends up feeling a little too loquacious for its own good. That said, when the primary complaint one can direct at a film is that is perhaps a shade too unsubtle, it’s clear that we’re talking about quality cinema.