Desperation runs through the frozen ground and swelling seas in "Leviathan," director Andrey Zvyagintsev's devastatingly beautiful and grand tale of man's ever deepening helplessness against a corrupt state and an indifferent God.
The unlucky casualty of both Thomas Hobbes and Job (as in the "Book of") is Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov), a craftsman and mechanic whose family has inhabited this particular fishing town in North Russia for three generations. He lives in a gorgeous, wooden, sea-battered house, along with his beautiful young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his unruly adolescent son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), from a previous marriage.
We learn early on that the town's mayor, Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov), a brutish, puffy thug, is aiming to take away Kolya's business, house and land. He has his eyes on a commercial communications center of some sort, and Kolya's idyllic two-thirds of an acre on a slip of land overlooking the Barents Sea is just the spot for his greedy ambitions.
Kolya, a hot-tempered, passionate sort, calls in his cool, suave friend Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a buttoned up Moscow lawyer, for help in court. Despite a front of masculine aloofness, Kolya wears every worry on his face and in ever jug of vodka he consumes. His entire being is wrapped up in the house, a physical representation of his heritage and a symbol of his personhood, and it's all in jeopardy.
Alas, their appeal is rejected by a humorless bureaucrat who reads what might as well be this man's execution sentence with monotone, robotic speed. We've not seen or heard the last word from this alienating system, though. There is perfect symmetry to this tragedy.
For a moment, hope doesn't seem to be lost. Dmitri has an edge. He plans to use Vadim's deep, and (we're to assume) embarrassing corruption for leverage for his friend, but, in the midst of a deal, human weakness gets in the way after a traumatizing discovery on a weekend camping (and shooting and drinking) trip. With feelings and friendships suddenly in jeopardy, everything spirals further out of control till there is nothing left.
If it sounds like all business, it's really not. Most of the scenes take place in the home, among friends and tenuous allies -- the folks that you've known for far too long and dislike far too much, but the town is small enough that they're all you've got.
At least there's vodka, which seems to be the only thing in abundant supply.
To say much more about what's in store for Kolya would diminish the impact of "Leviathan." Needless to say, this is a Russian story, it is very long, and the hits keep coming with relentless indifference, peppered with perilously dark humor.
Kolya is the gritty, steadfast heart of the film, anchored by Serebryakov's resolute performance, and the layered characters around him help to build out a world that's both familiar and isolating.
It is the filmmaking that is the real triumph, though, from the melancholy cinematography to the sheer scope of the storytelling. Zvyagintsev has made this very small tale of a man and his family and some bureaucrats feel like it's actually about everything without ever resorting to melodrama, even when the camera returns to linger on the ship and whale carcasses sitting in the shallow sea. Somehow every minute feels earned.
Beyond the dense allegories and veiled critiques of Vladimir Putin, who merely lingers in portrait form over the shoulders of the state's employees, there is an essential human story here.
When man is fated for destruction at the hands of the institutions designed for protection, all you can do is laugh and drink until both run out. What else could you expect from a Philip Glass-scored film that begins and ends with a violent sea crashing against a rocky shore?
"Leviathan," a Sony Pictures Classic release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language and some sexuality/graphic nudity." Running time: 141 minutes. Four stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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