In "Leviathan," director Andrey Zvyagintsev finds humor amid the bleak reality of Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Vladimir Putin's Russia -- brutal, carnivorous, delusional, but monstrously well-evolved for crushing both spirits and lives large and small -- is taken to task in this excoriating portrait of the state's omnivorous hunger for control in a far-flung northern fishing community on the Barents Sea. The Russian Federation's 2015 Academy Award entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category (it lost to Poland's Ida) lives up to its title and then some.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev (2003's The Return) paints on a giant canvas but chooses to focus on the travails of one fragile family: father Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), his wife Lilya (Elena Liadova) and his rebellious son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) from a previous marriage. Kolya works as a mechanic and odd-jobber when he's not sousing himself blind with cheap vodka, while Lilya spends her days at the local fishing cannery. Roma, who resents Lilya's presence, reluctantly attends what passes for the local school but prefers hanging out in an abandoned church drinking beer with his friends. The family's already meager existence is threatened further by the unctuous, porcine local mayor (Roman Madianov), who covets Kolya's parcel of land and has embroiled him in an eminent domain lawsuit. The arrival of Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a Moscow-based attorney and old army buddy retained by Kolya to help him fight city hall, at first appears to provide potential legal recourse, but ends up only complicating matters.
In Zvyagintsev's rightfully jaundiced view, there's really no such thing as justice for a common man such as Kolya, or even the more sober (barely) and better-educated Dmitri. The entire game is rigged against the individual; power makes might makes right, and the only cold comfort apparent in Leviathan is the omnipresent vodka and the occasional grappling of sex, violent or otherwise. (Lilya's ultimate position in the grand scheme of things is, if anything, the most hopeless and dispiriting of all.)
Working with his longtime cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and frequent co-screenwriter Oleg Negin, Zvyagintsev's film is an epic in miniature, and a howlingly despondent masterpiece at that. The film employs the harshly photogenic landscape (craggy outcroppings, vertiginous cliffs, Stalinist-era apartment buildings -- all of this overhung with a sky the color of cyanosis) and an intimate knowledge of the myriad ways minor martinets can become masters of relatively decent men and women whom they consider mere "insects" (as a drunken Mayor Vadim tells an equally vodka-impaired Kolya). Leviathan takes no prisoners, either. The Greek Orthodox church is shown to be utterly complicit in the crimes of the state, both large and small.
You may ask why you should subject yourself to such a gruelingly bleak narrative. Well, for one thing, Zvyagintsev has a wonderful sense of fatalistic humor. There's a grimly funny sequence mid-film wherein Kolya's family and friends spend a day in the wild, windy countryside, slamming down liter after liter of -- what else? -- vodka while target-shooting, with rifles and a Kalashnikov, at framed photographs of their previous Soviet political bosses. Bang! There goes Stalin. Ka-pow! Do svidaniya, Brezhnev. Rat-a-tat-tat! Later, Lenin. (Putin is spared with a wry aside, because he is historically -- and, one assumes, literally -- too near.)
The film also has moments of revelatory beauty, as when Roma, fleeing the emotional chaos in his father's home, hides out amid the solitude of the tidal pools, and perches on a boulder beside the colossal, weathered skeleton of a whale. (Metaphors abound.)
A monumental achievement in contemporary Russian cinema, Leviathan exudes existential Russian angst in cinematic form. Putin, for better or worse, is at Russia's helm for the moment, but the shades of his predecessors linger like bad dreams from which no one can fully awaken.