Reticent and foreboding right from during its first scene, Russian film “Leviathan”, which was recently Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film early in this year, is shrouded in a moody, fatalistic aura of ill fortune. Even when things seem to become a little better for its ordinary main characters, there is always a subtle but palpable sense of the wheels of fate inexorably operated under the surface, and we come to witness a bitter irony in how that pitiless operation is further lubricated by power, greed, and corruption in their desolate world.
When we meet Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) at the beginning, he has been going through a legal conflict with Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the powerful and corrupt mayor of his beach town which is located somewhere in the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia. While we are not informed a lot about their conflict, we slowly gather that Vadim forced Kolya into a rather unfair deal because he wanted to buy Kolya’s land with a cheaper price for some important business deal. Kolya already submitted a petition to the local court, but, not so surprisingly, the petition was denied for the reason pretty clear even to us even though it is not mentioned at all.
However, it seems that Kolya has a good chance in this time although his petition is flatly and swiftly denied again at the high court along with the monotonous fast-reading of the final judgment. His lawyer Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a smart, resourceful guy who comes to help Kolya from Moscow as an old military buddy (we later get a brief glimpse of their past through one small photo of them), acquires certain incriminating documents detailing the long history of Vadim’s corruption, and they may get a better settlement with Vadim outside the court if they use these documents in blackmailing him.
But then we observe more of how formidable Vadim is in his territory. This is a guy who has secured his position through many connections with high-ranking officials above him, and this loathsome fat cat is certainly not so pleased to learn that some hotshot lawyer from Moscow has gotten his weak spots to expose. Mainly because the election is coming, Vadim has no choice but to step back in front of the possible full exposure of his corruption in public, but he is still a man of power and influence none the less, and he even gets a pep talk from a local bishop, who has probably turned a blind eye to Vadim’s many sins for his own benefit.
And we can surely see his big influence even when he does not appear on the screen. During one scene where Kolya and Dmitri go to the local police station for reporting Vadim’s drunken disturbance in front of Kolya’s house during the previous night, Kolya’s inadvertently gets himself arrested thanks to his hot temper, and Dmitri and Kolya’s wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) are frustrated to see how they are deliberately blocked by the corrupt, ineffectual system, though Kolya is eventually released later.
While not hurrying itself, the screenplay by the director Andrey Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin, who received Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, slowly reveals more about its main characters bit by bit, and the actors in the film are believable in their natural performances as people struggling through their mundane daily life without much hope. When Lilya goes to some cheap apartment to check her family’s new place, the blank space in front of her eyes quietly suggests her frustration with life, and we are not so surprised when she later chooses to do something which is not so wise for her as well as others around her.
That unwise behavior of hers eventually leads to a crucial turning point which is incidentally not shown on the screen, and the movie only lets us watch the resulting effects on her and others in the aftermath. Kolya’s son Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev), who has a fair share of his own problems as an adolescent boy, is deeply troubled by what happened, and there is a short but heartbreaking moment when he tries to deal with his mixed feelings alone on the beach. Mired in more despair and misery through the series of bad incidents, Kolya begins to ask himself how things become worse for him and his family, but then fate slaps him much harder as he realizes how helpless he is in front of an absurd and cruel twist of fate. While Zvyagintsev said that he got the main idea of his story from a real-life incident in US, there is an apparent parallel between the story and that biblical tale of Job, and that makes the climactic scene of the film all the more ironic as we reflect on what is said during this scene, which is full of hypocrisy to amuse and disgust us.
There are several murky aspects in its story, and I sometimes felt it held itself a little too much, but “Leviathan” is a compelling work thanks to Zvyagintsev’s confident direction. The grey, chilly landscapes on the screen emphasize the nervous mood of ambiguousness as accentuating the sense of despair and desolation surrounding the characters, and there are a number of striking moments of bleak beauty as the camera shows a couple of ruined sea-faring boats nearly submerged in the water or a big, giant white skeleton of whale left alone on the beach. While music is mostly absent throughout the film, the excerpt from Phillip Glass’s opera piece “Akhnaten” is impressively used during the opening and closing scenes, and its relentless detached cyclic rhythm effectively complements the moody ambience of ominous sea landscapes shown on the screen.
The overall mood is grim and depressing indeed along with the frequent appearance of vodka bottles, but the movie is not without humor. During a family picnic of Kolya and his two close friends, there is a moment of wry humor when the portraits of several Soviet political leaders including Lenin and Gorbachev are used as additional shooting targets, and the movie throws a small indirect jab at the current status of Russian society when one character makes an amusing remark on why they do not have the portraits of recent Russian political leaders for shooting targets.
Like Zvyagintsev’s two previous films “The Return” (2003) and “Elena” (2011), “Leviathan” is calm and distant as taking its time to establish story and characters, and it may test your patience if you are not a fan of those ‘slow’ arthouse movies. Of course, this is not exactly for entertainment, but there are lots of things to admire once you follow its slow pace, and you may sense anger and concern behind its reticence as getting chilled by how a beast called system can crush an individual with no mercy.
It would be interesting to visit contemporary Russia thru this film….