Leviathan Movie Review

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The release of Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s grand and savage social satire Leviathan, which wallows in the mire of Soviet bureaucracy and tells a grubby story about one man’s desperate attempt to battle corruption and hold onto his home in a small seaside town, has solicited squawks of confusion and disbelief from the pundits. How could Kremlin officials, with their isolationist policies, astrakhan hats and vodka-infused grimaces ever have let this film (which was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Picture) see the light of day?
Stranger still that it was partly financed by the Russian government, leading some to question whether anyone has checked the last-known whereabouts of the person who signed off on it. Moscow isn’t exactly opening the gates to a new era of openness and self-reflection; new rules in fact were introduced in January prohibiting licenses for films “defiling the national culture, posing a threat to national unity and undermining the foundations of the constitutional order”.
It seems unlikely that whoever processed Leviathan’s funding application wouldn’t have grasped its interminable bleakness. The story of Kolia (Aleksey Serebrayakov) fighting to protect his waterside land from being taken by dodgy local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) while grappling with a series of family misfortunes is almost nihilistic in its handling of the David versus Goliath narrative: The Castle without the patina of hope for humankind.
Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky slammed the film for being “anti-Russian” while at the same time arguing its themes are universal and that it could have been set in the United States, France or Italy. On the latter he is quite right, because while Leviathan feels like a stinging response to Putin-era politics there is nothing in the story’s essential elements that wouldn’t translate to an equally scathing examination of capitalist values.
Co-written by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, the story doesn’t follow Kolia’s plight per se: it is more about capturing its ramifications. The film switches focus between subjects and unfurls through broad architecture rather than personal narrative, as if the writers distrusted any one character from steering it. This gives Leviathan a cunningly wide perspective and an almost exposé-like quality to its patchwork of vignettes, stitched together to illuminate different shades of a central injustice.
Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman shoots with a crisp, wide lens that combines embittered looking characters with photogenic backdrops of mountains and water. Like Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake there is a beautiful coldness to it which is enhanced by the coastal setting. The water infuses the human dramas with a vaguely existential aura, as if the filmmakers are acknowledging all their troubles will one day be washed away.
In one scene Kolia buys two bottles of vodka and necks one down outside the shop. He sees the local priest and asks “Where’s your merciful god almighty?” The priest responds “Mine is with me. As for yours, I wouldn’t know”. Leviathan’s emotional essence exists in that moment. Even with God on your side, the writers seem to be saying, you’re on your own. It’s a pronouncement that, like the film, is both brutal and spiritual.

5 responses to “Leviathan Movie Review

  1. I agree with Luke, I also wonder if the producer didn’t end up with the Russian equivalent of concrete boots in the cold Northern Russian Sea where this film was shot. The feel of the movie is unsettling and dramatic and the sense and smell of corruption is compounded by an ending of stunning reality of the connection between church and state. The bleached carcass of a whale and the decaying remains of boats on the shoreline are powerful images that linger on the memory. A stunning film that shows a Russia that Vladimir Putin probably doesn’t want the rest of the world to see. The reality is though the heart of this film is that Putin’s soul and that of his government was sold to Faust years ago, the character’s and their stories mirror their leaders bleakness in a raw and stunning way. A powerful indictment of a country controlled by government of dubious scruples, ethics and unnerving intimidation. A truly memorable film of enormous power and scope.

  2. Leviathon could have been made anywhere, yes. But of course it WAS Russia. And what a judgement On that system. It struck me too, that it could have been set in a noir L.A. with Bogart and that lot, and made the perfect Hollywood black and white thriller from the 40’s. It’s all there, corrupt mayor, bad cops, grubby violence, faulty hero, troubled romance … just a spectacularly different setting. Best film of the year, by far.

  3. Found it too melodramatic and cliched (you hardly saw a Russian without a bottle of vodka) with much heavy-handed symbolism involving whales. The film was good on Russian masculinity and women as in the wonderful scene on the beach (the best in the film) The capitalist is a stereotype: fat, slobbering ugly not at all like the smooth members of the oligarchs who control Russia.
    There are two moments of grace in the film, one quite moving where a couple take responsibility for the kid, who is another strength of the film, And the one where a priest appears from nowhere and preaches a sermon on Job.which is less convincing, Corruption is far more insidious and subtle than is depicted in this film. Or is Russia different?

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