In the recent Academy Award Nominated Russian Film “Leviathan”, the filmmaker Andrey Zvyaginstsev presents to his audience the tragic story of a middle aged car mechanic (Kolia) who, during his lifetime, has built a modest house for his son and wife overlooking the shores of the Barents Sea but who sadly falls victim to the corrupt local mayor who is hell bent on taking our protagonist’s property and turning his life into a living hell from which there is to be no escape. The word “Leviathan” refers back to the Book of Job and often refers to a monster from the sea which has, on occasions been associated with the whale in Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
Despite what appears to be a genuine attempt by Kolia’s close friend and lawyer Dimitri to discredit the mayor by threatening to make public scandalous information about him, the threats prove to be of no avail whatsoever and the inevitability of Kolia’s loss becomes apparent. Adding insult to injury, the audience becomes aware of an affair that is taking place between Kolia’s wife and his best friend, a fact that becomes known to Kolia and his friends at a hunting picnic when the two lovers are caught in the act not only sending Kolia into further levels of despair and anger, but also creating emotional turmoil in Kolia’s teenage son, who clearly still mourns and misses the loss of his real mother who had died previously.
There is to be no happy ending for the protagonist as we sit back and watch the tragedy unfold and the fate of Kolia continue to sink to even further low levels. We feel his pain at each stage of the movie and question why someone who clearly has a good heart and wants nothing but to enjoy life with his family is being subject to such injustice.
Sadly, the story is an all too familiar one. On a daily basis we see people around us who despite having good intentions fall victim to circumstances that challenge our belief in a higher being who is supposed to be watching over us. There is barely a week that goes by that we do not read in the newspaper of the tragic loss of a young child’s life who happens to fall victim to a drunk driver or happens to be unlucky enough to get in the way of a stray bullet that is intended for a rival gang member.
Even in our own daily lives, we all have been witness to someone losing their life to an illness that occurs way too early in someone’s life and we watch the tragedy that unfolds for the family who have to live with these events and somehow keep going.
From time to time I do volunteer work for an organization in Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles which tries to help the homeless and unemployed re-enter (or enter for the first time) the work force so that they can become productive members of society. I conduct mock interviews with some of these individuals in the hope that I might help them prepare for their actual job interview making them aware of some of the questions they are likely to face. In some cases, the applicant may have been incarcerated for a number of years with a felony conviction on their record making the prospects of getting anything other than a manual labor job almost impossible.
Some time ago I sat down with a young Mexican man in his early 20s who had just spent the last few years in jail after holding up a liquor store in the hope of getting a few hundred dollars of cash to purchase food and medical supplies for his aging mother whose health was failing. In previous years, the young man had done everything he could to secure a degree that he hoped would provide him with decent employment and a reasonable wage. He had worked hard in high school and successfully applied to get a degree as a mail nurse in the hope of one day becoming a doctor. After completing his degree, the young man looked for employment in one of the many LA hospitals only to find that there were no paying jobs available and the best he could do was to get a job as intern for which he received no pay hoping that perhaps this may eventually lead to employment. As the months went by and no paying jobs became available, and with a mother who desperately needed medication and no money to pay for it, the young man with no where else to turn, went into a liquor store one night in a failed attempt to steal a couple of hundred dollars that resulted in him spending the next two years in jail.
Here is a young man who does everything he is supposed to do to try and get ahead yet the society in which he lives puts up barriers to the price of entry. Now with a criminal record against his name, the prospects of getting a decent paying job are a distant dream that may take several years to even remotely be a possibility. Unlike many of the inmates that are incarcerated in the Los Angeles County prison system, at least here, he has a degree and formal training that perhaps he might get to use at some point. For many of the inmates in our prison system, no formal job training is even offered and so after spending, in some cases, 5-10 years behind bars, many of these individuals when released from prison have no skill sets whatsoever and accordingly what kind of job prospects are these individuals ever going to have?
In the ancient Book of Job, the question is raised “Why do the Righteous Suffer?” For many, this single question is the true essence of what it is to have blind faith such that even when confronted with human suffering and unanswerable questions, one can still hold on to a belief that there is a reason for everything.
When one of the great Jewish scholars, Rabbi Akiva, was sentenced to death and was to be publically executed, at the hour when his body was being flayed by iron combs, he nonetheless recited the Shema, the holiest of Jewish prayers. When asked by his students as he was dying why, even at that moment he was able to fulfill the obligation of reciting the prayer, he said “”All my life I have been troubled by this verse, “You shall love God… with all your soul.” As I have explained its meaning: “all your soul” — even if they take your life. I have always wondered: will I ever have the privilege of fulfilling this mitzvah? And now that the opportunity has finally arrived — shall I not seize it?”
At the end of the movie “Leviathan”, our protagonist does not have any great revelation. There is no great moment of justice served and his fate is sealed. There is no explanation as to why it is that he suffers other than the fact that he is ultimately a victim of the system. Too many people fall victims to the system today. Many of these people are good and decent individuals who are just unfortunate enough to be born into the wrong place at the wrong time.
I do not know what the answer is for these people other than as it pertains to the rest of us, we need to continue to be compassionate and show support for these individuals and remember that the difference between where they are and where our own existence is, can often be a fine line and in some cases, just a question of fate!
“It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity.”