Western perception of Russia is largely formed by the infrequent appearances of Vladimir Putin on the news, he’s regularly portrayed as a benevolent dictator who will silence all who oppose his regime. Under these circumstances it’s remarkably brave that Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvaginstev’s provocatively takes a sledgehammer to political corruption in his story of local politics in a small fishing village somewhere in north western Russia.
With a series of establishing shots Zvyagintsev captures the rugged desolate beauty of a Russian fishing village. Waves crashing against the rocks, still waters, empty roads, and a worn out house by the sea pre-dawn, a light is turned on. Zvyagintsev is not inclined to move his camera a great deal, a pan here and there is about as energetic as he gets. No helicopter or crane shots, no rapid editing to speed the narrative along. However he fills the frame with a rich mise en scene, superb acting and an engrossing narrative that oozes intelligence from beginning to end.
We are introduced to the little guy Kolia(Alexei Serebriakov) a mechanic, in the early morning before dawn preparing to go to court to fight the mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) from taking his house and land he has lived on for years. His court appearance is one in a long line of petitions that continue to result in him being frustrated by the injustice of the judicial system. Kolia's fiery temper doesn’t help, demonstrated as he hits his son early in the pic. His friend from the army Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) now a lawyer arrives from Moscow to defend him, armed with material that could assist his friend. Kolia’s wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) sullen and depressed tries to support her husband but circumstances are more complicated as we soon discover.
What makes Leviathan nothing less than compelling are the characters, richly drawn and compellingly human. From the corrupt mayor surrounded by burly bodyguards, first seen having dinner with a compliant orthodox priest, obese and alcoholic, corrupt and all powerful. He’s brilliantly played by Madyanov. He wants Kolia’s home so he can build a development property to get richer and exploit further. To Kolia self destructive and violent, who drinks Vodka with a fierce determination, he is the anti-christ. In one superb scene arriving drunk and aggressive the mayor teases his victim with his power, “You never had any rights and never will.” Truer words have never been spoken, don’t expect happy endings.
Winner of best screenplay at Cannes and nominated for the Palme d’Or and Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.