Dir. Andrei Zvyagintsev. 2014.

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The Return (2003), The Banishment (2007), and Elena (2011), the first three features of Andrei Zvyagintsev, were all, to my mind, among the very best films of the first decade or so of this century.  He has now crowned these achievements with Leviathan, and established himself as arguably the finest exponent of intense family drama in world cinema.

Like The Return, and along with other recent Russian films such as The Island and Silent Souls, Leviathan is set in the coastal far north with its striking landscapes and seascapes.  The title, referring to a giant sea serpent or whale, comes from the Old Testament Book of Job, in which a good man is smitten with all sorts of misfortunes.  The Job-like character here, Kolya, not an obviously "good" person like Job, is threatened with losing his house and land to the corrupt local mayor Vadim, and invites his lawyer friend Dmitri to assist him.  Things go from bad to worse, however, and the comparison with the biblical Job becomes more obvious, especially when it is spelled out to him by a local priest.

The film is also a condemnation of the corruption rife in today's Russia (state officialdom being equated to a kind of "Leviathan"), and it is surprising that the authorities have approved the film by entering it for the 2015 Oscars, especially as Putin's photo is prominently displayed in Vadim's office, the words "Pussy Riot" are momentarily glimpsed on a TV screen, and photos of past Soviet presidents are used as target practice in a shooting contest!  Copious amounts of vodka are consumed by most of the characters, as well as numerous cigarettes.

Other "Leviathans" shown in the film are the rotting hulks of ships and the actual skeleton of a whale by the coast, plus a rather frightening machine which, to say more about, would amount to a spoiler.

The film looks stunning, should be seen on a big screen, and has an ominous musical score by Philip Glass.  In the penultimate scene, an Orthodox priest delivers a sermon which is clearly the director's view of the events of his film.
Leviathan is a film in which everything that happens is bad, and none of the characters are very nice, except possibly Kolya's wife who is something of a doormat.  This may sound depressing, but it is a riveting film, with lots of dialogue which requires constant concentration.  It has already won awards (including "best film" at the 2014 London Festival), and should win more.  It is a landmark in Russian and world cinema, and should be seen as widely as possible.

Alan Pavelin






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