REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media
Why do the righteous suffer? Why would God allow such a seeming inequity? This is the question posed by the Biblical Book of Job.
The Russian film, “Leviathan” offers a modern-day analogue of Job. The setting is a small, unnamed town, seemingly on the Barents Sea. The protagonist, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), must endure a panoply of hardships.
As the film opens, waves crash on the shore with swells of a stunning symphonic score in the background. The aural treat abruptly stops. Until a musical snippet in the closing frames of Leviathan,” the film’s track is dominated by more than two hours of ambient sounds. Admittedly, this is a gripe about something, which is parenthetical to the film. However, this curious filmmaking decision epitomized my early frustration with the widely acclaimed “Leviathan.”
Kolya owns a hilltop parcel of land, which has a beautiful, seaside view. In a nod to the film’s Biblical namesake, whales intermittently visit the bay. Kolya’s property is a family legacy. The mechanically-inclined Kolya brags that he built the house on it with his own bare hands.
Kolya lives with his attractive young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and an adolescent son from a prior marriage, Romka. The tension between Lilya and Romka is obvious. When Romka speaks rudely to his stepmother, Kolya slaps him.
Kolya operates a moderately successful auto repair shop. He gripes incessantly about the fact that the town’s officials expect to have their cars fixed for free, just to avoid harassment.
The town’s mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), is a short, rotund man with a disagreeable nature. It appears that Vadim is less a source of power than an apparatchik for the oligarchy that supplanted Soviet bureaucracy. Tellingly, a portrait of Valdimir Putin hangs over the desk in the mayor’s office.
The days of Stalinist-style abuse may be over, but is life under Putin any better? Someone apparently covets Kolya’s property and its hilltop view of the sea. Vadim begins Court proceedings to appropriate the land.
What hope does Kolya have against the powerful entities arrayed against him? Kolya solicits the help of an old Army buddy, Dmitri (Elena Lyadova). The latter has become an attorney in Moscow. There, he is a savvy practitioner of civil procedure. Dimitri professes to believe in the rule of law. However, he harbors a cynical view of how due process is corrupted by extra-legal considerations. Dimitri has compiled a dossier on Vadim, chocked full of inculpatory evidence. Will this be sufficient to induce Vadim to back off?
Andrei Zvyagintsev is the co-screenwriter/director of “Leviathan.” Zvyagintsev was in the United States, shooting a segment for the film, “New York, I Love You.” His contribution was eventually excluded from the composite work. While here, he learned of a news story, involving Marvin Heemeyer. The Granby, Colorado man operated a muffler repair shop in the town. When he lost a zoning dispute, he went on a rampage using a Komatsu D355A bulldozer and demolishing the town hall, the mayor’s home, and various other buildings. The incident ended tragically with Heemeyer shooting himself in the head with a handgun.
Zvyagintsev and his co-writer, Oleg Negin, transpose elements of the Heemeyer story to Russia. The film serves as an allegory about governmental corruption in a Putin-era Russia. It is no coincidence that news stories about Pussy Riot just happen to be playing on a television set in the background of a scene. The feminist punk rock group uses music as a platform to attack Putin, who they regard as a despicable dictator.
Given its anti-Putin posture, it is surprising that the filmmakers of “Leviathan” received $2.5 million dollars, approximately 45 percent of its funding, from government sources. Even more surprising is the fact that Russia designated “Leviathan” as its official submission to the Academy Awards.
Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, “Leviathan” has been widely hailed as a masterpiece. The critical praise has been virtually universal. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and is nominated for an Academy Award in the same category.
I appreciate the film’s attacks on governmental corruption. However, the cinematic brilliance of “Leviathan” somehow eludes me.
The human world is rife with corruption and inequity. “Leviathan” ends up being a long, depressing sermon to make a point that is self-evident.
** 1/2 R (for language and some sexuality/graphic nudity) 140 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.