“Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?” a Russian Orthodox priest asks in Leviathan, quoting the Book of Job to the distraught Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a working-class father and husband whose world is falling apart. But the canny priest is referring to Thomas Hobbes’ 17th century book of the same name, which argued that man’s individual desires and freedoms must cede to sovereign rule in order to avoid an anarchist society. And Kolya, an auto repairman who lives in a modest home in a Russian coastal town with a stunning view of the sea, is trying to prevent the corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madianov, emanating moral rot) from seizing his land for public use at a price way below its value.
Kolya tries everything he can think of, including enlisting help from his lawyer friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who flies in from Moscow to represent him in court. But director Andrey Zvyagintsev makes it clear from the outset Kolya is tilting at windmills, from the judges who dismiss his appeals in a cold, rapid-fire manner, to the local cops, some of whom are Kolya’s friends, who call on him for free tune-ups but toe the party line when forced to choose sides.
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The stress takes a toll on Kolya, a volatile, temperamental man who knocks back vodka like water, hoping for a tonic to provide a solution to his dilemma. As his worried wife (Elena Liadova) and son (Sergey Pokhodaev) deal with the family’s deteriorating home life, the mayor, who has a portrait of Vladimir Putin in his office, begins to turn the screws on the helpless man. He cuts off Kolya’s attempts at resolving the matter through legal means and eventually resorts to more drastic measures, pushing the movie’s already-considerable tension into the red zone.
Written by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, Leviathan, which is one of this year’s nominees for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, opens and closes with gorgeous shots of the Barents Sea splashing against the coastline, the waves caressing rocks and jetties with grace and fury, set to a swelling score by Philip Glass. The images impart entirely different meanings once you’ve experienced the pressure-cooker drama in-between. What at first seems like a celebration of natural beauty in the end becomes a symbol of futility and rigidity. The government is as unmovable as the stones constantly battered by the sea, and the movie has no qualms about criticizing Russia’s totalitarian state and history of oppression (in one scene, Kolya goes target shooting with his friends, one of whom brings framed photos of Stalin, Kruschev and Gorbachev for them to fire at).
Although Zvyagintsev somehow managed to get Russia’s 30-member Oscar committee to submit the film for Academy Award consideration, Leviathan has been attacked by the Kremlin, civic and church leaders and even the Russian Liberal Democratic Party (the movie will be censored before its release in its native country for profanity and any content deemed to be critical of the law). Zvyagintsev’s style of storytelling may be heavy-handed, but the movie is intended to rile and agitate, and the subject matter warrants the director’s style. His scathing depiction of all-consuming bureaucracy is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, except this isn’t a work of satirical science-fiction fantasy. Instead, it’s a cry of despair and soul-shaking desperation, leavened with shades of Dostoyevskyan angst.
Leviathan wouldn’t work nearly as well if it were just a piece of political propaganda: This is a portrait of people living under constant duress, trying to drown their sorrows in a bottle and sometimes behaving in misguided ways that will free them, if only temporarily, from their grim reality. They’re much more than sock puppets spouting ideology. There are some surprising twists involving Kolya and his wife that have nothing to do with the main premise. Like real people, the husband and wife are flawed, bitter, prickly and resigned. But they’re also capable of pushing back when trapped, although they know their chances of victory are slim. Even under an oppressive regime, hope can still thrive and sometimes — but not always — lead to change.
Cast: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Liadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madianov, Aleksey Rozin, Sergey Pokhodaev.
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Screenwriters: Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 141 minutes. In Russian with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, violence, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema; in Palm Beach: Delray.