The exquisite drama “Leviathan,” an Academy Award front-runner for best foreign language film, takes viewers on an icy plunge into the grim realities of life in post-Soviet Russia, where citizens are caught in a system of corruption so thoroughly ingrained that it touches even the most intimate, transcendent moments of life.
In this story of one man’s Job-like struggle with that system, what at first seems to be an admirable parable of speaking truth to power swiftly becomes exponentially more complicated. Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), a mechanic who lives with his wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) in a picturesque coastal town on the Barents Sea, has been told by the city that his house and property are being seized for public-private use. With the help of his Army buddy Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a Moscow lawyer, he’s fighting the authorities, making one last idealistic stand against a state that, once mired in communist-era malfeasance, has now pivoted to the Putinesque realities of opportunism, greed and bare-knuckled thuggery.
But, in the hands of filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev, what promises to be an inspiring Mr. Smith-like tale instead seems derived from equal parts Kafka and Chekhov, the bureaucratic nightmares of one drawn out with the seething quietude of the other. Filmed and framed with stately elegance, its blue-gray palette and arresting natural setting heightening the physical beauty of its lead players, “Leviathan” obeys all the tenets of the best political thrillers, with Kolya’s circuitous journey introducing the audience to a cast of fascinatingly ambiguous characters. Most valuably, over a slow-burn 2
The sense of thoroughgoing corruption is introduced almost from the outset, when Kolya and Dima encounter a neighbor and traffic cop who casually asks for a freebie as payola for a friend. It permeates the mayor’s office, occupied by a porcine old-school party man named Vadim (Roman Madyanov) and the judiciary, where Kolya’s appeals are disposed of with rapid-fire dismissals from a stone-faced panel of judges. Fueled by steady infusions of vodka, Kolya and Dima’s fight — which dramatically changes dynamic during a drunken picnic with locals — looks less quixotically heroic than the small, sad embodiment of a civic society strangled in its crib.
Nowhere is that clearer than in “Leviathan’s” utterly devastating third act, and its endgame of breathtaking hypocrisy and cynicism. Magnificently acted, expertly crafted and unerringly sure of every treacherous step it takes, “Leviathan” is an indictment, but also an elegy, a film set among the monumental ruins of a culture, whether they’re the skeletal remains of boats, a whale’s bleached bones, a demolished building or a trail of lives that are either ruined or hopelessly resigned. It’s also a canny study in how power operates, whether on behalf of an indifferent and greedy God, a malevolent state or brutish, patriarchal force. Mostly, though, it’s an intensely human drama that plays out as poignantly in eloquent background moments as through its mesmerizing foreground characters, such as a scene of an anonymous couple weeping in a courthouse hallway. From its chamber-piece delicacy and bureaucratic detail to a grandeur and implacable pessimism that seem as ancient as the land itself, “Leviathan” is a distinctly Russian tragedy.
★ ★ ★ ★
R. At the Avalon Theatre. Contains profanity, some sexuality and brief nudity. In Russian with subtitles. 140 minutes.