Jan 3, 2015
A dark political fable from Andrey Zvyagintzev, this bitterly funny, tragic movie could be interpreted as a modern day retelling of Job's story about a man besieged by fate, lost in the belly of a whale, except in this case, he is besieged by the corruption and impunity of a local functionary who has seized his property, refuses to pay a fair price for it, and intends to build some grand monument in its place in a backwater in the middle of nowhere, Russia.
Winner of best screenplay at Cannes, Leviathan is not only a chronicle of the destructive powers of unimpeded graft, but also a look into a culture which harbors a dangerous combination of powerlessness and recklessness. This may be the movie where individuals drink the most in the history of cinema. Their shots of vodka are downed in 4-ounce glasses filled to the hilt. They chug vodka by the bottle. But then again, there is nothing else to do in this nameless northern town, home to fish packing factories, boat and whale carcasses, and abusive local authorities.
Zvyagintzev takes his time introducing us to his characters: Kolya, a car mechanic and volatile heavy drinker, who is not a bad man, his younger, unhappy second wife Lilya, and Kolya's ornery teenage son, Roma. Dima, a friend from Kolya's army days, comes all the way from Moscow to help Kolya defend himself against Vadim, the corrupt official who has all institutions in town, including the arrogant patriarch of the local church, in his pocket.
Because these people are human, they do all kinds of fucking up on their own besides trying to fight Vadim, which helps him destroy them and makes it a far more interesting movie than if they were just in a righteous crusade for justice (that would be the American version). Kolya built his house on a hill overlooking the bay with his own hands, it has been his family's land for generations, but Vadim cares not for roots, history or people. He uses a combination of drunken threats, the misapplication of the law, and their own recklessness to get them out of the way.
Before it turns tragic and appallingly ironic (in the real world impunity always wins), much fun is to be had observing local custom. Policemen who drive and shoot target practice while drunk out of their gourds (with children running around, to boot), teenagers with nothing to do but drink inside the ruins of an old church, women that counsel others not too drink so much while pouring them another hefty glass, and the ridiculous theater of bureaucracy in the guise of endless laws, articles, codes and paragraphs completely perverted to serve power, a sham designed to trick people into thinking they live in a lawful country.
If this is not a parable about life under Putin, I don't know what is. Mystifyingly, the movie got made with governmental support, which means that either the censors are idiots, or Putin wants to show the world that there is some sort of freedom of expression in Russia.
Leviathan is a fantastic movie. Anybody who has ever lived under brazenly corrupt regimes will understand in their bones the combination of frustration, exhaustion, outrage and ultimate capitulation that these Russian folks experience. You laugh until it sobers you up.