“Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?“ Job 41:1
Filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (Elena) latest Russian epic plays out like a modern tragedy. The opening scene is majestic as ferocious waves crash against the rocky shoreline to a moving Philip Glass soundtrack. One of the most memorable shots is the skeleton of a beached whale that lies on the shore. This is a powerful film that deals with working class people fighting against Russia’s corrupt post-Soviet system. The film was nominated for the best foreign language Oscar this year but lost out to Pawel Pawlikowski’s masterpiece ‘Ida.’ It’s difficult to completely summarize ‘Leviathan’ since it encompasses so much through political satire, dark comedy and unsettling family drama. ‘Leviathan’ is a modern Russian tragedy that would make Chekhov proud.
Not only does Zvyagintsev use the Book of Job references in his story but also Thomas Hobbes’ political views which argue about man’s individual desires and freedoms that must surrender to sovereign rule (in this case Putin’s current regime). That’s why this film is so timely. It could happen in any country but it is the current state of affairs in modern Russia. As with any Zvyagintsev film, the cinematography by Mikhail Krichman is bleak and foreboding with blues and greys that cut like a knife. The main story takes place in a small coastal fishing village along the Barents Sea. It’s basically a story of a poor Russian villager fighting a corrupt bureaucracy. If it were made into an American movie, the little guy would triumph over the government bad guys. Zyyagintsev never takes the easy way out because life in Russia is more complicated than a conventional Hollywood film.
The main guy in the story is Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) that lives and works on a waterside property that has been owned by his family for generations. He is a hard-working but hot-tempered man that drinks vodka like water. He owns a small garage and fixes the cars of local policeman for free. His young and beautiful second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) works at the local fish cannery and does her best caring for Kolya’s moody teenage son Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev). When the mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) tries to force Kolya to sell his property for a meager sum, Kolya enlists the help of his old military buddy and now hot-shot Moscow lawyer Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichevkov). As the mayor swigs shots of vodka with a portrait of Putin sneering from above his office, he decides to pay Kolya an impromptu visit with his posse that look more like gangsters than political associates. It’s a stirring scene as Kolya and Vadim clash with each other. When Dimitri steps in with incriminating dirt he’s uncovered about Vadim, the drama gets extremely suspenseful.
One of the best scenes is when Dimitri joins Kolya, two male friends, wives and kids for an outing in the backcountry to shoot guns and drink vodka. After one of the men destroys a grouping of bottles for target practice with an AK-47 machine gun, he goes to his car and gets another set of targets. The new targets are portraits of Soviet leaders from Lenin through Gorbachev. When one of the guys asks him he is has any of their present –day leaders, he jokes “It’s too early for the current ones.” The film is loaded with sarcastic humor. The Russian ensemble cast is excellent. In particular, Alexey Serebryakov as the little guy that is getting the short end of the stick. The other two standout performances go to his young wife Lilya played by Lyadova and his lawyer friend Dimitri played by Vdovichenkov. Some of the characters go into strange directions that are not spelled out clearly. There seems to be an underlying message about the frailty of humans and the desire for freedom in a corrupt nation.
This film is not just about Russia. If you recall the Colorado landowner scandal, you’ll understand ‘Leviathan’ is making a broader statement about government’s power over its citizens’ lives. As Kolya’s misery grows, the pastor’s advice is sobering. He says, “Job resigned himself to his fate, and lived to be 140.” Basically saying to him, accept your cruel fate. “Is that a fairy tale? Answers Kolya. “No,” fires back the pastor, “it’s in the Bible.” ‘Leviathan’ is a superb drama, magnificently acted and expertly crafted with brooding cinematography. It is now playing exclusively at The Flicks and an art house cinema near you. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/UEs_dFSba4c.