Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Aleksey Serebryakov, Roman Madyanov
Leviathan is Russia's official submission for the 2015 Foreign Language Oscar, which is quite a surprise, given how critical it is of contemporary Russia and its inherent corruption. The movie is essentially banned in its home country, ostensibly for contravening Russia's stringent anti-swearing laws, but you don't have to be too much of a conspiracy theorist to see why Putin and his cronies would like to keep this away from Russian eyes.
Serebryakov, an actor whose face is as rugged and timeworn as the surf battered coasts of the film's Barents Sea location, plays Nikolai, whose home, built with his own hands, is in danger of being destroyed, the local mayor (Madyanov) having cut a deal with the Russian Orthodox Church. He enlists the aid of his old friend Dmitri (Vdovichenkov, Russia's George Clooney, though with his flattened prizefighter's nose he more resembles a Slavic Belmondo), a Moscow lawyer who digs up dirt on the Mayor's crooked dealings. Nikolai's life is further complicated when Dmitri begins to conduct an affair with his wife Lilya (Lyadova).
Two structures loom large over Andrey Zvyagintsev's drama, both representing Russia's Tsarist past and the desire of those currently at the top to return to such ways in the new anarcho-capitalist Russia. There's the ruin of an old church, likely destroyed by the anti-religious Communist regime, now used as a hangout for underage drinkers, the light of their makeshift fires climbing the old building's walls like an infernal graphic equaliser. There's also a second church, one which hasn't been erected yet, a Russian Orthodox equivalent of those lavish American 'Mega-churches'. This is the structure that Nikolai's humble home stands in the way of. Religion is the opium of the people after all, and has always been a major tool of those wishing to screw over the public, hence the Russian establishment's current campaign to resurrect the national Church. After a series of terrible personal tragedies, Nikolai asks the local priest why a benevolent God would allow him to suffer such, only to receive the classic reply of "God works in mysterious ways."
Nikolai is a classic doomed, melancholic archetype of Russian fiction. He shouts a lot when drunk and alone with his friends and family, but when the time comes to fight he shrinks away, loading a rifle he's never really going to use. Learning of his wife's affair, he instantly forgives her, but his understanding is thinly disguised self loathing, as though he felt her infidelity were inevitable. I can't speak for its accuracy, having no experience of life in smalltown Russia, but this felt like a far more honest and accurate portrayal of rural society than the bizarre and over the top representation of a similar Irish milieu in Calvary.
At 2.5 hours, Leviathan plays out a lot like one of the many acclaimed Scandinavian TV dramas that dominate the schedules of the hipper TV networks. Its three acts feel very much like individual episodes, and there are moments where you almost expect a 'Next time on Leviathan' promo. Like those Nordic shows, it's impeccably mounted and acted, but with its lack of cinematic scope, you do feel like you should be watching Zvyagintsev's movie curled up at home on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon.
By Eric Hillis