Film Review of the Week: Leviathan

I can guarantee with some level of certainty that you've never seen vodka consumed in such devastating quantities, and with such wanton disregard, as in the drama Leviathan, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.  

Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, this Russian knee-slapper didn't take home the best foreign film award at Sunday's Oscars — that honor went to Ida, from Poland — but in its soulful, somber portrait of a man at war with his graft-ridden local government, his turbulent family and himself, the picture is both a tragedy and a horror at once. And for those of you who are into this sort of thing, it's densely packed with the exposed-nerve existentialism that seems to come as part of the northern Russian landscape littered, as it is in this case, with the skeletons of enormous whales.

Plus the vodka: These depressed middle-aged Russian dudes dispatch bottles faster than American youngsters dispatch single cans of Tahitian Treat. The film makes clear that, at least for Kolya, Leviathan's weary protagonist, there's seldom nowhere to turn but the blindness of strong drink.

At its crux, the film is about a land dispute. Kolya lives on a modest plot overlooking the Barents Sea, a plot on which his father and his grandfather tilled the soil and raised high the roofbeams. Kolya gets by as an auto mechanic, but is often roped into fixing policemen's clunkers pro bono. As the film begins, Kolya has enlisted the aid of an old pal from the army, Dmitriy, who's now a lawyer in Moscow, to help him fend off the fat, corrupt, provincial Mayor, who wants to bulldoze Kolya's property and build a telecom hub. Kolya suspects the Mayor secretly intends to build a mansion for himself.

But Dmitriy's presence awakens some latent marital tension between Kolya and his younger wife Lilya (portrayed with restraint by Elena Lyadova), and Kolya's municipal paralysis is soon superseded by personal woes: the anger and misbehavior of his distraught son; the emotional abandonment and physical betrayal of his wife; the grander (but seemingly no less personal) abandonment and betrayal of God.

At 140 minutes, this is a film for which you'll have to hunker down. Though a few moments of wit and subtle anti-Putinism slyly wended their way into the final edit, huge chunks of the film feel as bleak and as hopeless as Kolya's prospects. As an epic, tragic onscreen poem, though, this one rewards your patience with beauty, albeit of a savage kind.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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