Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Stars: Alexey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovitchenko, Sergey Pokhodaev, Roman Madyanov.
The David versus Goliath like Leviathan is a loose reworking of the Biblical story of Job, and explores how a man is systematically crushed and ground down by the unrelenting bureaucracy of modern day Russia.
Kolya (played by Aleksey Serebryakov) is a mechanic who owns a parcel of land by the Barents Sea, which is occupied by a humble little shack that has been in his family for generations. But Kolya learns that the corrupt local mayor (Roman Madyanov) wants to buy his land and develop it for an urgent tourism project. Kolya and his family face forced eviction. Kolya wants more money than the mayor is prepared to pay for the land.
Kolya enlists the help of Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a former army friend who now works as a lawyer in Moscow. Dimitri is quite prepared to blackmail the mayor about his past indiscretions. But the mayor is also willing to use what ever means he has at his disposal to ensure he achieves his ends. And in modern Russia, the ends more than justify the means.
Kolya soon turns to the bottle to drown his problems, which leads to further tensions between him and his second wife Lydia (Elena Lyadova) and surly teenaged son Romka (Sergey Pokhodaev).
This solemn, bleak and miserable art house drama is a typically slow paced film from Russia, and awash with the usual irony, angst and grim view of the human condition that has coloured Russian literature. Leviathan deals with themes of endemic corruption, justice, infidelity, marriage, religion, and dysfunctional family relationships. And of course being Russian, there is lots of vodka consumed along the way.
The film’s central drama was actually inspired by an incident that occurred in Colorado, where a landowner went on a murderous rampage after a series of court hearings denied him justice when his land and business was taken away from him under the concept of eminent domain. Here writer and director Andrey Zvyagintsev (the elegiac The Return, etc) has relocated the story to his native Russia, and it serves as a powerful indictment of contemporary Russia under Putin.
Leviathan gives us a warts and all look at modern day Russia as it explores the corruption, paranoia, politics, power struggles and the naked grabs for power, the betrayal of the average Russian citizen, and the religious hypocrisy of modern Russia. All of which makes for some heavy going. The film has many subplots, some of which are not satisfactorily resolved, but then that typical is life, where not everything runs smoothly or ends neatly. There are some moments of black humour throughout the film though which serve the alleviate the oppressive mood.
Leviathan has been superbly shot and is awash in symbolism for those who will notice that kind of thing. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman works in long steady takes and he captures some striking images of the desolate coastal region. The decaying white skeleton of a whale that lies on the beach serves as a palpable metaphor for the decaying social and political structure of Russia. And the decaying small coastal village that is home to Kolya is also superbly captured. Philip Glass’ haunting score is the perfect accompaniment for Krichman’s beautiful visuals and the downbeat tone of the film.
The deeply flawed Kolya himself is not the most likeable of characters, and Serebryakov brings a suitably prickly nature, world weariness and stoic quality to his performance. And Madyanov dominates the film with his slimy characterisation as the bullying, driven and venal mayor. But he somehow also manages to make the mayor a three dimensional character, a man who seems to have a vision for the future of this small town and will stop at nothing to achieve it.
Leviathan took the top prize at the Cannes film festival, and was, somewhat surprisingly, Russia’s official entry for the Oscars, but with its languid pacing, bleak mood, and lack of action, it is not a film that will appeal to everyone.