Leviathan (2014)

Review #1,118

Director:  Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cast:  Elena LyadovaVladimir VdovichenkovRoman Madyanov
Plot:  In a Russian coastal town, Kolya is forced to fight the corrupt mayor when he is told that his house will be demolished.  He recruits a lawyer friend, Dmitri to help.  But the man's arrival brings further misfortune for Kolya and his family.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Best Screenplay (Cannes).  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Language Feature.
Runtime:  140min
Rating:  M18 for language and some sexuality/graphic nudity.

“All power comes from God.  As long as it suits Him, fear not.”

Some believe that Andrey Zvyagintsev is the modern reincarnation of Andrey Tarkovsky.  While that remains to be debated, I personally think he is one of most important filmmakers working today, and perhaps the most important in Russia at the moment. 

In Leviathan, which won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, we see his most ambitious work to date.  It is also his most political.  All this bodes well for the arthouse filmgoer eager to see a great film. 

Leviathan is indeed a great film, staggering to behold at times.  Its opening images of waves crashing onto shore, accompanied by some familiar grandeur music (yes it is Philip Glass) tells us to expect something larger than life, of which nature holds no answer, but can only offer her sympathy. 

We are acquainted with a family – an alcoholic and aggressive father, a woman whom he (presumably) remarried, and a boy on the brink of frustration.  They live in a huge house on a piece of land next to a river.  It is an isolated place, connected by a single bus, and long stretches of tarmac.  Sometimes it rains and the atmosphere is gloomy. 

Who really wants to buy that plot of land?  Oh yes, a corrupted local mayor trying to evict the family.  He wants to tear down the house and build something else, well something that I don't think the community would need. 

Very much a legal tussle between the father and the mayor, Leviathan underscores the tension and threat with brilliant dialogue, the kind that unfolds with a powerful mix of political commentary and black humour, but grounded in fatalism.  Like nature, we can only sympathize.

The performances are top-notch under Zvyagintsev's masterful direction.  The actors provide the dramatic intimacy, while the vastness of nature (magnificently shot by the outstanding Mikhail Krichman, who has worked with Zvyagintsev since his debut The Return (2003)) evokes a sense of time lived and time past.

In one shot that made it into the movie poster, a boy sits on a rock beside the huge skeleton of a beached whale.  Or could that be a dinosaur from eons past?  The idea is not to read the film too literally.  Leviathan, if nothing else, is a film of heavy but rich symbolism.  Sometimes it hits you in-your-face, at other times, it is as subtle as a paper cup blown away by a gust. 

While Elena (2011) is more narratively focused and tighter in construction, Leviathan sees Zvyagintsev trying to scale up what would have been an Elena-type drama into something like The Banishment (2007), only much less arduous to sit through. 

Leviathan should be seen on the big screen, and will have no trouble finding a spot in my annual list of my favourite ten films of the year.  A must-watch for any cinephile.

Verdict:  Staggering to behold at times, Russian contemporary master Zvyagintsev scores another triumphant entry that is both vast and intimate.


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