★★★★ / ★★★★
On the surface, “Leviathan” tells the story of a handyman who decides to take the mayor to court over a piece of land. The prolonged tug-of-war between the two has bred so much animosity and frustration, we get the impression that both are on the verge of committing violence to get what he wants. But one can argue that the film is not about the plot but about a lifestyle. It can be viewed as a peek into modern Russia, focusing on a microcosm and those who live in that small town.
The film is beautifully photographed. The exterior wide shots capture a blue-gray desolation, as if most of the land, certainly the outskirts of town, have not been touched for years. Scenes that take place inside homes, hotels, and government facilities contain a detachment about them, a simplicity, a sternness. And whether it be inside or outside houses or establishments, many of the people we encounter do not have a spark about them—as if living the lives they have is more of a chore than one that should be enjoyed.
Most alive are scenes in which rage is expressed. Mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), having had more than a few drinks, decides to visit handyman Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), almost equally intoxicated, and demand that he and his family move out even though it is not yet the time—legally or ethically—for such orders. Here we see clearly the two men’s similarities, flaws, and inconsistencies. Each passing second is an escalation to a boiling point and we begin to wonder eventually if the unwelcome visit would erupt into violence. These are two people who genuinely hate each other’s guts.
We get a taste of the corruption that courses in the veins of the fictional town. At one point, Kolya gets arrested for no good reason. His best friend, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a lawyer from Moscow, tries to contact the proper authorities but, curiously, no one seems to be available. We get the feeling that something is seriously wrong. Still, this is only a whiff of what is about to come.
Halfway through, the picture changes gears. It surprised me, in a good way, because it is so uncommon for movies to sacrifice such a high level of tension to make room for the audience to understand the characters a little more. The picnic scene sits in the middle of the film and it is a critical turning point because it allows us not only to see how Kolya and his family are like amongst friends but it also provides a hint about how their lives must have been like prior to all the highly stressful litigations. Perhaps equally important, Kolya’s wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), begins to have a more central role in the story.
Directed with great vision and execution by Andrey Zvyagintsev, “Leviafan” is a most patient but rewarding film about how it may be like to fight a losing battle. Some may claim that it is depressing because of the look and feel of what is shown on screen. On the contrary, I think it is an example of a work that more filmmakers should aspire to produce. It is drenched in meaning, symbolism, and social commentary but these elements do not get in the way of making a great movie.