By Phillip Guy Ellis (Northampton, England)
Genre – World Cinema > Drama
2 hr 20 minutes
Certificate – 18
Country – Russia
Awards – 33 Wins & 44 Nominations
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The word Leviathan is mostly known as the sea monster referenced in the ‘Book of Job’ in the Hebrew Bible, director Andrey Zvyagintsev film a reworking of that Book of Job into a modern fable. According to Wikipedia the title is also tied to the 1651 book by the same name by famous philosopher and adviser to the King of England, Thomas Hobbes. The book concludes that people are inherently evil and lazy and unable to rule themselves and therefore the church and the government (of King) must do that for them through oppressive “tough love” politics. Those against the dominance of these bodies of rule are therefore the enemy of church and state and should be treated as such (now that’s padding!).
The 2015 Russian offering was Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, that year, and lost out to the film ‘Ida’ from Poland. A lot of vodka was drunk in the film and for most of the scenes involving that drinking, the ‘method’ was deployed and the actors and director decided that they would drink for real and the take used in the film often in double-figures as they were that pi**ed. The Russian Ministry of Culture – who had provided 35% of its funding – was pi**ed in a different way over the films ‘negative depiction of ordinary Russians’. They took exception to its portrayal of Russians as being lazy and hard-drinking, hardly the image they wanted showcased at the Oscars. That £3.5m budget did hardly any money outside of Russia though, two hours of Russian melancholy, hard drinking and biblical analogies not exactly a crowd pleaser.
Aleksey Serebryakov … Nikolay
Elena Lyadova … Lilya
Vladimir Vdovichenkov … Dmitriy
Roman Madyanov … Mer
Anna Ukolova … Anzhela
Aleksey Rozin … Pasha
Sergey Pokhodaev … Romka
Platon Kamenev … Vitya
Sergey Bachurskiy … Stepanych
Valeriy Grishko … Arkhierey
Alla Emintseva … Sudya
Margarita Shubina … Prokuror
Dmitriy Bykovskiy-Romashov … Nachalnik politsii
Sergey Borisov … Operativnik
Igor Savochkin … Sledovatel
Set in the baron and isolated fictional Russian town of Pribrezhny (shot in the coastal town of Teriberka, Murmansk) we meet born and bred rugged local hard drinking Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), a square-jawed hotheaded car mechanic who lives with his attractive second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodyaev), from his first marriage.
Roma doesn’t like Lilya and just adds to the family tensions on the wintry Baltic coastline as the town’s crooked Mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) has undertaken a legal plot to expropriate the land by the sea on which Kolya’s house is built. The mayor’s plan is supposedly to build a telecommunications mast on Kolya’s property, offering a seriously undervalued sum for compensation to Kolya, although Kolya believes that the mayor’s real plan is to build a villa for himself.
Kolya’s long-time friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) from military service when they were younger is a sharp and successful lawyer from Moscow and Kolya has called him down to help him fight the legal action through the local court system. But on the day of the trial, Kolya loses it as the verdict goes the other way and he is arrested for shouting at police officers in a police station. Dima does manage to get his friend released from jail by threatening the mayor with compromising documents. During that brief incarceration, Lilya and Dima distress by jumping into bed together.
On a shooting and dinking outing with Kolya’s friend Ivan (Sergei Bachursky), Roma witnesses Lilya and Dima doing the naughty behind some rocks and Kolya finds out about the affair, assaulting the couple, pumping up the stress levels some more, specially as the Mayor sends his goons out to threaten Dima.
The local Orthodox Church are not helping them either, the bishop (Valeriy Grishko) telling his friend the mayor that all power comes from God and encourages him to solve his problems with force. A juxtaposition of events are beginning to press on Kolya and his family like an old rusting Russian submarine at crush depth.
As I say it’s a two hour Russian film on the grim Baltic coast so not exactly a barrel of laughs. What humor we get is dry and aimed at Russian film fans who understand more the target than the wider audience does. In fact a lot of this is aimed at them and I guess a film designed to have a more than a subtle prod at Putin and modern Russia, themes of corruption and the church and government bureaucracy concurrent. I suspect it’s the only way Russians can do that.
I watched Leviathan as the director did a really good film called Elena on similar oppressive themes and as this was highly recommended. It’s an intense and well-acted film but the booze soaked flawed characters are hard to get behind. The ending is very Putin and only one winner. The ending was the best thing in it and very welcome after two plus hours of this that felt like four days. It’s one of those films you pause your set top box or DVD and see the time bar and groan when you realize how long to go.
Russian romance is as cold as the Urals in film and very few smiles here. Vladimir Vdovichenkov, who played Dmitry, and Elena Lyadova, who played Lilya, actually started a personal relationship during filming and so some smiles to be had. They got married in early 2015. The looks they give each other in film give that away. But it’s a grim movie and needed more tension between the mayor and the oppressed for this to really work for me. Instead the Book of Job parable leaned more towards the relationship side of things and started to drag. If you don’t care about that side you don’t care about the films messages. At least its bleakness looked good on film and some memorable images left in your head to contemplate.
IMDb.com –7.6/10.0 (37,234votes)
Rottentomatos.com – 99% critic’s approval
Metacritic.com – 92% critic’s approval
Globe & Mail – ‘Call it what you like – a modern Russian epic, a crime drama, a black comedy or a scream in the dark – Leviathan is a shaggy masterpiece’.
Toronto Star – ‘Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated and vodka-soaked satire of modern Russia, which plays more like tragedy’.
Washington Post – ‘This is a tale of vodka-fueled dysfunction, of the meaninglessness of a life in which fairness and freedom are little more than easily ignored words’.
The Mail – ‘This is quite a movie, a bitter and compassionate work of genius that will reward repeat viewings and keep on getting better’.
Chicago Times – ‘As in their previous feature, Elena, Zvyagintsev and cowriter Oleg Negin modulate their social critique with sharp, ironic humor’.
The New Yorker – ‘If Leviathan is a masterpiece… it’s a masterpiece of political pessimism. The end of history has arrived and it is in post-Soviet Russia’.
The Melbourne Age – ‘It’s a film packed with symbolism and big questions of the kind that can stew in a viewer’s head for days, even weeks afterward’.