LEVIATHAN (2014, Russia)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cast: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 97% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In a rugged coastal town in northern Russia, Kolya fights against a corrupt mayor to keep his house from being demolished.

The coastal town in Leviathan might be considered beautiful in some other film.  The crashing waves on its rocky shores are reminiscent of Norway or Iceland.  But in this movie, behind every exterior shot of a stupendous mountainside is a sense of dread or gloom.  No doubt there are people in this town who celebrate things like birthdays or holidays or weddings.  Not in this movie.  In Leviathan, the atmosphere seems to prohibit any kind of celebration that isn’t preceded by consuming large quantities of vodka.

Kolya is a husband and father who lives in a house he built (he says) with his own two hands, along with his wife, Lilya, and son, Romka.  He’s currently locked in a legal battle with the corrupt mayor, Vadim, who wants to bulldoze Kolya’s house to make way for what Kolya assumes will be yet another mayoral mansion.  Like all the men in his circle, Kolya drinks a little too much vodka at times and is a bit of a hothead, which is a strike against him whenever he tries to reason with the authorities about his problems.

Kolya calls an old lawyer friend, Dmitriy, in Moscow for help.  Dmitriy does some digging and shows up at Kolya’s house with a folder full of damaging information against the mayor.  We get a good sense of how the mayor operates in a scene where he shows up drunk at Kolya’s house and demands that Kolya learn his place in the grand scheme of things.  He has power and he knows it, but in this scene, and in others where he flexes his power, he’s never far away from a bodyguard or a henchman or three.  He’s a mean little man.

Not that Kolya is a saint himself, either.  He doesn’t shy away from giving his son a sharp smack on the back of the head for sassing Lilya.  When he drinks, he’s more given to insults than jovialness.  But he really does seem to love his wife, and we feel for him when we see his efforts to get the mayor off his back through legal means, when what he’d REALLY like to do is just shoot him and be done with it.

The movie establishes this basic plot relatively slowly.  It’s a great example of a slow burn.  The first few scenes seem unconnected as we see Kolya and Lilya interact with Romka, and Kolya picks up Dmitriy from the train station, and they have a meal, and so on.  It isn’t until we reach a scene in a courtroom where the whole plot is spelled out for us in an astonishing rapid-fire speech from a judge who reads out what sounds like twenty pages of legal findings in about three minutes.  It was almost like listening to a Russian version of a Micro-Machines commercial.

As the story moves on, that sense of dread escalates.  It’s that kind of feeling you read about in books where a storm is approaching.  There’s no rain, but the air is a little sharper, the wind just a tad heavier.  The whole first half of the movie is like that.  Small things happen here and there that point subtly towards impending disaster.  In one shot, Kolya cradles a shotgun in his lap.  In another, we discover that Dmitriy and Kolya’s wife are a little more than just friends.  Kolya is detained by the police for making a scene in a police station.  We see his capability for violence even though it is never truly demonstrated.  That simmering anger underneath everything he says makes any conversation with Kolya a little edgy.

At one point, the corrupt mayor comes down on his cronies, telling them to do their jobs and get Kolya and his lawyer friend off his back.  After that, in a remarkably tense scene, Kolya, Lilya, Dmitriy, and some other friends go out shooting by a small lake and waterfall.  It’s all friendly enough, with a little portable grill and the wives making kebabs and the vodka flowing freely.  But as they set up the targets (empty bottles on a log), and each of the men take their turns with their rifles, I was inexplicably on edge.  I felt, I knew that something was going to happen, I just didn’t know what.  Their children run off to play by the water…is one of them going to drown?  One of the shooters has brought, not a rifle or a shotgun, but a freaking AK-47.  (He makes short work of the target bottles.)  Was this guy going to turn the gun on Kolya?  It’s a masterful bit of suspense that culminates in a completely unexpected direction.

There are other twists and turns in the story that I won’t reveal here, but what is this movie really about?  It’s about nothing more or less than how some men seem to be born to suffer.  Kolya is one of these men.  He has a teenage son who tolerates him, but can’t stand his wife, who is actually the boy’s stepmother.  A powerful man will stop at nothing to seize his house and land, and there doesn’t seem to be anything he can do about it.  The circumstances of how and when he discovers Lilya’s infidelity are traumatic, to say the least.  And for almost two-and-a-half hours, Kolya suffers the trials of Job.  Lilya gets her fair share of grief, too.

And yet, somehow, it was still an entertaining watch.  What separates this film from another movie about human suffering (say, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) is HOW this movie was made.  Rather than presenting the story in a documentary fashion, Leviathan looks and feels like it was shot 100% by a Hollywood crew with Hollywood production values.  It rather looks and feels like a high-end Coen brothers movie.  The story is about suffering, true, but the movie itself is slick and well-constructed.

I liked how the corrupt mayor, Vadim, visits his local Orthodox priest with his woes, and the priest, who seems to be more than a little involved in Vadim’s business dealings, advises him, “All power is from God.  As long as it suits Him, fear not.”  Basically, he’s telling Vadim to use his power to do what’s necessary, and because God is also powerful, He will be on Vadim’s side.  A rather self-serving interpretation of the power of God, but there you have it.  And then, later in the film during a sermon to his congregation, he does a complete about-face, talking about how God sees everything, but he is not honored by a show of force.  Here’s a man who tailors God’s will as it suits him.  If the mayor is a mean little man, this priest is an enabler.  I’m not sure who I disliked more.

(For the record, Leviathan has one of the most interesting and surprising “payoff” scenes I’ve ever seen in a film.  When I saw it, my jaw dropped a little…it almost redefines the movie like a Shyamalan-esque twist.  Almost.  Not quite.  But it’s interesting in that kind of way.)

Earlier, I Googled “famous Russian movie comedies” and found a page that listed ten “essential” Soviet comedies.  None were made before 1984.  I tried again and found a list of fifteen great modern Russian comedies stretching from 1995 to 2018.  I have never heard of a single one of these movies and have no idea how I would go about finding a copy were I so inclined to actually watch one of them.

I mention this because, after watching Leviathan, I needed convincing that Russian directors could direct anything other than deep dramas about the human experience in one way or the other.  Of the six Russian films I’ve seen, three are Soviet era (Come and See [1985], Mirror [1975], Stalker [1979]), and two of those are by the same director, Andrei Tarkovsky.  The others are this film and two silent classics, Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera, which doesn’t qualify as a deep drama, I guess, but I include it for the sake of thoroughness.  The best Russian films are well made, to be sure, but light-hearted they are not.  I’m not a film scholar, but I would guess it has to do with the inherent toughness that comes with growing up Russian.  Those crazy winters, the bloody history of the place, the financial hardships, etc.  It would be interesting to see a Russian comedy, if for nothing else just to see what might make a Russian laugh.

(P.S. The IMDb trivia page reveals that, for many of the drinking scenes, the actors chose to drink real vodka. As a result, many of the takes of those scenes in the film are the 8th or 9th take, where the actors are genuinely drunk. Maybe THAT’S what makes a Russian laugh…?)

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