Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review: Leviathan

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Bleak, ambiguous and often visually stunning, Andrey Zvyagintsev's ambitious parable about corruption in Vladimir Putin's Russia is a grim, but worthwhile, epic of biblical - and we're talking Book of Job - proportions. The film requires some heavy lifting on the part of its audience, but those who give themselves over to this languid, but occasionally absurdly funny, tale will find much to chew on.

The picture often switches its narrative focal view point, beginning through the eyes of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a temperamental man who has taken the corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), of his small town to court after his property was claimed for the town's use. Unfortunately for Kolya, the mayor appears to have the court under his thumb, a fact that he learns during an absurdist sequence as the ruling is rendered in the style of an auction chant.

Vadim, a slimy creature, shows up at Kolya's home drunk that evening, taunting him, his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and moody teenage son (Sergey Pokhodaev). Kolya's Army buddy, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a slick Moscow lawyer, happens to be on-hand and tells the mayor that he would like to meet with him privately. Dmitri tells Kolya that he has dug up some dirt on Vadim that he believes will help him to keep his land.

These first few sequences set off a chain of events during which we discover that Dmitri and Lilya are having an affair behind Kolya's back and Vadim brings in some heavy hitters (which appear to include the Russian mob and the church) to fight Dmitri's accusations. Late in the film, a death of one of the characters occurs, although it is never quite clear how the person died or whether foul play was involved. Regardless, one of the characters shoulders the blame, while another is nearly killed in a desolate spot by some Russian mobsters.

"Leviathan" is beautifully filmed and there are some breathtaking sequences, including Kolya's son running away and finding himself facing a gigantic whale skeleton on a beach, Lilya's observing a diving whale in the ocean and a target practice that grows increasingly tense, but offers some comic relief as those involved take aim at photos of past Russian leaders. Those taking part in the shooting declare they will hold off making judgments about the nation's present leadership, although a picture of Putin hanging over the crooked Vadim's desk appears to speak volumes.

The Book of Job is referenced specifically once, but that biblical text is ever-present throughout the film. In the Bible, Job is put through one trial after another by God and questions why the righteous suffer, although Kolya - a heavy drinker and man of quick temper - is no saint. The film also ends ambiguously, never quite answering the question of who killed one character and what became of another. While it is understandable, considering the film's overall tone, why that first question remains unanswered, I wasn't so sure about the second.

The movie was one of the most highly praised at this year's Cannes Film Festival and I can see why. It's a powerful film filled with some stunning images and an impressive bid on behalf of Zvyagintsev - who is responsible for the hypnotic "The Return" and the equally bleak "Elena" - to make a serious work of art. If it falls slightly short of being a great film, I have no doubt that it's a very good one.

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