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On the surface, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s fourth feature, Leviathan, is about how a dispute over land in a remote Russian township becomes a stone that casts cataclysmic ripples through a family and a community. But there are much greater monsters of the deep moving under the surface of this powerful, craftily allusive and elusive film. Simultaneously a modern essay on suffering, an open-ended thriller, and a black social comedy, it is most importantly of all a thinly veiled political parable drenched in bitter irony that takes aim against the corrupt, corrosive regime of Vladimir Putin. The wacky punchline is that it was made with financial support from the Russian Ministry of Culture. Already pre-sold to a raft of territories before it played in Cannes’ competition, where it has been hotly tipped to win the Palme d’or before being screened, Leviathan may plumb greater box-office depths than usual for Russian-language fare.
Ever since Zvyagintsev’s first feature, The Return, won the Golden Lion in Venice in 2003, writers have been comparing him to Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev), partly because both men are tremendously gifted cinematic craftsmen (obviously), and partly because the latter is often the only Russian director viewers outside the motherland know much about, apart from Sergei Eisenstein. All the same, there are concrete similarities between them, like a shared interest in poetic opacity, ambiguous religious imagery and “metaphysics” (whatever that means), and the ability to layer hidden meanings densely on top of superficially simple dramas.
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Now for the differences. While Tarkovsky’s work was feted and revered abroad during his lifetime, his aesthetic and thematic deviations from the party line put him in direct conflict with the Soviet authorities and ultimately forced him into exile. Zvyagintsev, on the other hand, has suffered no persecution from the regime currently in power in Russia — yet. There is, however, a notable disparity between his elevated reputation abroad and at home, where his work is largely confined to the specialist market, even with backing from powerful local media mogul Alexander Rodnyansky, who takes a producer credit on Leviathan. Look closely at Tarkovsky’s work, and it’s relatively easy to see why he was considered a dissident, but any intended political subtexts in Zvyagintsev’s work have been much harder to divine.
That’s not the case with Leviathan. With this, Zvyagintsev pretty much nails his colors to the mast in timely fashion, especially given the escalating disgust worldwide over the way Putin regime conducts itself on the international stage and persecutes its own citizenry. The mockery is overt in one sly, laugh-raising scene where the host of a drunken shooting party offers up official portraits of former Soviet and Russian leaders for target practice, and the riflemen debate whether it’s time yet to take aim at those currently in power. But the digs go much deeper than that. The film gradually evolves into a balls-out indictment of the corruption that’s seeped into the very groundwater of government, the police force and the judiciary and a hypocritical and compromised Russian Orthodox Church, a j’accuse that will prove especially controversial in Russia. Religious language and Biblical references may permeate the film, but as its devastatingly acid final scene makes clear, Zvyagintsev is not on the side of the priests.
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The movie gets to that point via a fascinatingly circuitous route, pulling in a tightening coil the plot strands and its various characters, all of them rendered in fine grain by the cast, by subtle increments as it goes along. It is so slyly executed that this will probably be even more rewarding on a second viewing, but when first seen, its expansive nature at times, especially in the midway stretch, may risk inviting unflattering comparisons with Zvyagintsev’s unwieldy 157-minute sophomore feature, The Banishment (2007).
As in that latter film, a couple with marital problems living in the stcks are at the center of the story. Car-shop owner Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov, from Inhabited Island sci-fi franchise) seems happily married to his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova, who indelibly played the wayward daughter in Zvyagintsev’s last film, Elena). The couple are in the final, doomed endgame of a long battle with the local mayor Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov) over the terms of the town’s eminent domain claim on their land and home, a stunningly located two-story sheaved in windows and memories, where they live with Kolya’s young teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhadaev) from his first marriage.
Kolya invites up north his old army buddy Dmitri aka “Dima” (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) who’s now a hot-shot Moscow lawyer to help fight the case. Through connections with shadowy figures in the capital, Dima has dug up some highly incriminating material (which, Pulp Fiction-style, is never revealed) that could ruin the mayor. But threatening the hornet-like Vadim with exposure only exacerbates his anger, and he calls in the heavies.
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But the major and his cronies aren’t the only ones capable of violence. Handsome Dima’s presence widens cracks in the surface of Kolya and Lilya’s marriage, resulting in fisticuffs that happen offstage, marking just one of the film’s several key ellipses. These intriguing gaps in the story serve multiple purposes, like underscoring the impossibility of ever knowing the truth about about anything in a society riven by secrets. They also handily keep the running time down. Whatever the motivation, Zvyagintsev and credited editor Anna Mass’ complex game of show and tell adds a bewitching sense of unease.
Structurally, the script by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin (the latter also co-wrote Elena) is a teasing dance of the seven veils, which leaves their design and intentions more exposed with the shucking of each organza layer. Yet the characters keep reaching for some ungraspable, menacing vastness beyond their control or comprehension. The title refers to lines from the Biblical Book of Job, quoted at length in the film, from the passage where God asks Job, “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord?”
Hint: the answer is no. In the Bible, Leviathan is a mighty sea serpent and sometimes an incarnation of Satan, an awe-inducing creature of unfathomable might, and Kolya’s own suffering shadows Job’s. In the film, the bones of a beached whale lie on the Barents Sea beach where the action takes place, and at one key moment, the spotting of real live whale in the sea becomes an augur of death. It’s also, adding another gauzy palimpsest of irony, a reference to Thomas Hobbes’ book Leviathan in which the titular creature stands for the state. In Hobbes’ ideal world, the state is ruled by an absolute sovereign whose rule is undiluted by such irritating notions like separation of powers, free speech and religious tolerance. A receding hairline, and an interest in bare-chested horseback riding like a certain Vladimir Vladimirovich are optional features.
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Drill down deep enough and just about every detail in the film feels freighted with deeper meaning. This extends from the way nearly every scene DoP Mikhail Krichman shoots seems to be happening at the magic hours of dawn and dusk, to the sparing but telling deployment of bursts from Philip Glass’ voice-and-orchestral symphony Akhnaten, another mediation on power.
Production companies: A Non-Stop Production with the support of the Russian Ministry of Culture Cinema Fund, RuArts Foundation
Cast: Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov, Sergey Pokhadaev
Director: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Screenwriter: Oleg Negin, Andrei Zvyagintsev
Producers: Alexander Rodnyansky, Sergei Melkumov
Executive producer: Ekaterina Markulina,
Director of photography: Mikhail Krichman
Production designer: Andrei Ponkratov
Costume designer: Anna Bartuli
Editor: Anna Mass
Music: Philip Glass
Sales: Pyramide International
No rating, 141 minutes
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