Dr. Donna Copeland’s
The official foreign language submission from Russia to the Academy Awards, (also nominated by the Houston Film Critics for best foreign film) Leviathan is a slow burn film taking a look at the vast corruption in the country. Whether it’s obvious or not, Leviathan (meaning a large sea monster from the Old Testament) is a modern day version of the book of Job. Writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev seems to use allegory with every circumstance, but it’s never slapping you in the face with the inspiration of the context. Brooding and moody sets the tone for the small industrial coastal town where we begin to explore the various characters, which are not appealing for the audience to truly root for.
Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) and his family are fighting to keep their small house near the shipping docks in Northern Russia. The local corrupt mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) will stop at nothing to seize the property and teach Kolya ‘to know his place’. Working with a top lawyer from Moscow named Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), they upset the weighted balance and stronghold Vadim has over the area, blackmailing him with incriminating information in order to save Kolya’s house. It isn’t just his house that he is in danger of losing, his teenage son is having anger issues with his stepmother, who fancies getting out of the town and her life altogether.
The screenplay makes it very easy to dislike the corrupt political side, but Zvyagintsev makes it very difficult for the audience to identify and sympathize with Kolya’s redneck lifestyle as they continually drink to excess, often while shooting guns at family events. Zvyagintsev seems to find a chilling beauty about this place which has waterfalls and orange sunsets, but as with the theme, it's contrasted with ruins, skeletal remains on the beaches and drab weather. There is a bit of claustrophobia to the town and the people stuck there, and as the things Kolya loves the most get taken away from him, the tone gets darker visually and thematically.
Running over 140 minutes, Zvyagintsev certainly uses a slow pace to allow the characters to breathe and develop, holding shots almost always longer than a normal director would. The film becomes less about corruption and more about knowing when to give in and be happy with the love that is around you. Kolya constantly fights the system; he is quick to anger and violence, even with a priest giving him instruction on where to go next, he mocks him. Leviathan isn’t the most captivating of the foreign stand outs this year, but it’s certainly a film that gets slightly under your skin if you pay attention and absorb the narrative visually and technically.
Final Thought – A brooding, dark and cold look at corruption in small town Russia as a modern telling of the book of Job.
By: Dustin Chase
Leviathan: a monstrous beast, especially a sea monster. It can arise unexpectedly out of the ocean, confusing and bewildering bystanders, who seem helpless against it. Leviathan, the recent Russian movie winning nominations and awards from Cannes, the Golden Globes and other entities, is the retelling of the story of Job in the Bible, but put in a modern context of government corruption paired with religious complicity. The remonstrations of a church leader for reliance on God and trust in authority at the end ring hollow after what we have seen.
Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a middle class man who runs a successful business on land that has been in his family for generations. He is up against the town mayor (Roman Madyanov), who covets his land for a special project of his own, and has the courts in his power. In desperation, Kolya asks his lawyer friend from Moscow, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to defend his rights, and it looks like they might win, since Dmitriy has access to damaging information on the mayor.
Alongside this scenario are dramas involving Kolya’s wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and their friends. Amidst the constant, heavy vodka swilling of all involved, we begin to see tragedy after tragedy unfold. Through a combination of this with the government corruption, marital infidelity, suicide/murder(?), false assumptions bordering on paranoia wreak their havoc. The film opens and closes with a roiling sea and the uneasy sense of dread about what may come from it.
Andrey Zvyagintsev wrote the script with Oleg Negin and directed the film, which is highly suspenseful and well told, with periodic jolts of unexpected events to keep our attention fast. The continuing tension between religious precepts and reality match up the story with the one in the Bible, with the added nuance of placing it in contemporary events ongoing in Russia.
The actors provide seamless portrayals of their characters, with whom we quickly feel empathy and sympathy. They are caught up in something much bigger than they could imagine, and although they struggle valiantly, end up feeling there is nothing they can do about it. One either has to somehow find a religious answer or come to a place of skeptical cynicism. This is clearly in the realm of heavy drama—extremely well done.
The Book of Job in contemporary times.
By Donna R. Copeland