By Anna Power @powersfilms
Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a tale of rot and corruption in modern day Russia that is as brittle and barren as the skeletal Whale carcass beached on the shore of this remote northwestern Russian town.
Unforgiving and relentless, the film’s darkness is offset by exquisite raucous vodka-drenched banter of the kind that provokes laughter and blushes in equal measure. A rough re-working of the Old Testament’s Book of Job, it tells the story of Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov) a car mechanic who lives with beautiful, younger second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his son from his first marriage, Roma who have to their great misfortune attracted the unwanted attention of the merciless, morally-bankrupt new Mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) with his eye on land-grabbing Kolya’s familial home on a piece of prime coastal real estate. Vadim has plans to redevelop the area into a luxury pad and intends to steal it for a song, with the mighty weight of the law and government behind him; a clear dig at Putin’s Russia here, the greed and power of the state versus the insignificance of the rights of individuals, especially the poor.
Kolya, aware that his battle is of David and Goliath proportions, invites the help of ex-army buddy and hot-shot Moscow lawyer Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to help prevent the intended land-grab but this adds to only further complicate matters as Dimitri has an agenda of his own. Despite Kolya’s barking and battling, ultimately he is helpless; it’s all just the writhing of a fish caught in a bigger, stronger net. Like the skeletal remains of the beached Whale, Kolya too must endure his fate.
Women get a raw deal here too, this is a man’s world, a vodka-swilling macho man’s world where women have their uses as wives and mothers and menial workers. Even beautiful young Lilya’s fate seems cemented to a lifetime of gutting fish in the local factory, married to a man who mistreats her and a stepson who is actively adopting the same attributes. Her sense of oppression is visceral as is her confinement within her harsh existence. Anna Ukolova provides some of the best laughs as the mouthy, gives-as-good-as-she-gets policeman’s wife. Her brassy, boozy one-liners provide much needed relief.
Leviathan means large sea creature or Whale but it also alludes to the formidable might and power of the Russian state. Zvyagintsev skillfully uses the imagery of the Whale throughout the film as a metaphor, one whale is mighty, ominous, and invincible seen emerging and submerging off-shore, the other the aforementioned skeletal remains, perhaps an omen warning of what lies ahead, for a state who has sewn the seeds of its ultimate demise in corruption and greed.
It’s intensive viewing that demands full attention, inducing more than the occasional wave of stomach-churning nausea but this monster of a film will reel you in.
Leviathan is a scathing indictment of post communist corruption that seethes with cynicism and snaps at the bureaucratic litigiousness that underpins an infrastructure built on deception, fraud, power and avarice.
It was the winner of Best Film at this year’s London Film Festival and deservedly so. Out on general release from November 7th and on demand now.