If there were a simple and succinct point to Leviathan, it would be that life in Russia is really hard. Really, really hard. Given that, however, Leviathan is neither simple nor succinct. Part political fable, part morality play, all tragedy; Leviathan is more an essay of the Russian people and their every day lives dealing with the looming forces of greed and grief. Nikolay (played by Aleksey Serebryakov) is trying to protect his home from being taken over by the corrupt mayor of his town. The home is inhabited by Nicolay, his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and their son, Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev), and also serves as Nikolay’s small auto repair service. The family decides to fight against the Mayor’s wishes and they hire Dimitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), one of Nikolay’s old army friends who has now become a lawyer in Moscow. Together, they manage to gain the upper hand in the litigious battle for the homestead. Sadly, more bad luck is just around the corner for Nikolay. Will he be able to save his home without losing his family and ultimately his humanity?
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev uses many tools in Leviathan to create a tapestry of Russian life, and it is a bleak portrayal. It’s a surprising Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year. It sports a highly damning perspective on Russian government (best essayed in a scene where the characters are on a barbecue getaway in the mountains where they shoot rifles at framed pictures of government officials from the past), even though roughly 35% of the movie was financed by the Russian ministry of culture. Still, the movie is very direct with its allegorical intention. The film's equal parts biblical referencing and socio-political satire pull the narrative in multiple directions at once, all masterfully, without drawing away from the central theme; a sense of communal sadness that permeates the whole.
Another thing that shines through brightly is Zvyagintsev’s affection for his sorrowful country. The first thing that grabs you about Leviathan is how beautifully shot it is. Long landscape shots are peppered throughout the film, giving a meditative tone to the story. Beautiful shots of the nature of the small village and its people play throughout, reminding the viewer of what it is that these people are fighting so valiantly for.
Separated from its politics and polemic railings against the Russian government elite, Leviathan would fail as a straight up narrative. You only have to scratch the surface a little bit to realize that what is being spoken here is years of struggle, all with the hope of a happy ending that doesn’t manifest itself. There are some warming parts spread throughout the movie, subtle moments of humor mostly taking place in the first act, but these fleeting moments all end up serving the greater truth of the people’s sadness in the face of government corruption.
Leviathan is well acted and beautifully shot, but most importantly, it is a film that reminds people of the power of this medium. That there are elements of beauty to struggle and sadness. This is a movie that has to be seen to be believed.
Leviathan opens today at the Ritz Five.