Reviews - Leviathan
Reviewed By John Porter
From the meditative opening shots we are thrust into the lives of Kolya, his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and their lawyer friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenko) with immediacy: The narrative is part way through this existing situation regarding the house, part way through an ongoing argument between Kolya's son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and Lilya, and part way through a long-standing back and forth between Kolya and his fixing of the police chief's rust bucket car. Like the sea hiding it's many monsters, this world is already huge even before we know of its complexities. Zvyagintsev lets us learn about his characters through watching them deal with it all. There is no explaining of their actions, the occurrences are enough in themselves to reveal personality gradually, which gives the movie a wonderfully natural flow.
Attending a court hearing for their appeal, Kolya, Lilya and Dmitri stand in silence while a judge delivers the ruling snubbing their efforts in one extended, breathless assault. The message is clear: There is no space for debate when the authorities have decided upon a path. Even as Kolya and Lilya hold hands before the state's power it seems as though they are standing against a foe so big and convoluted that their solidarity is already wracked with despair.
Leviathan handles it's heavy themes with a mix of measured pacing and a dry, down-to-earth humour, alleviating some weight from an ultimately depressing situation without trivialising it. The figure of Mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who is suspected to need the land beneath Kolya's house to build a personal mansion, is however soon on the receiving end of his own indiscretions when Dmitri threatens to reveal the contents of an unassuming, but supposedly scandalous folder. In a sublime stroke we are never told the details of Dmitri's evidence, so crafting the Mayor into a shape of anonymous crookedness, an almost mythic figure of corruption personified. We see him dining with the local priest, casually watching a beating, and drunkenly confronting Kolya on the steps of the house which increasingly serves as a battleground in both Kolya's defiance and the destruction of his family.
As Kolya presses on with his crusade, the situation begins to spiral under it's own momentum. He is imprisoned on a false charge, Lilya and Dmitri have an affair, and the proceedings become increasingly vodka soaked, adding an anarchic and indiscriminate air to the troubles. At once a comment on cultural habits, the prevalence of vodka also allows the emotionally lambasted characters to display attitudes to government without inhibition, whilst still maintaining the realism of the movie. During a much lubricated picnic of rifles, kebabs, and adultery, the police chief produces a stack of pictures of Russian heads of state to use for target practice instead of empty bottles. Zvyagintsev's gaze is scathing, and even the social services are later mocked as a policeman explains that Roma will be, "looked after by the state", while iron prison doors grate shut in the background.
The land around the house often stretches the full width of the frame, and the colour palette is muted allowing it to take on a slightly bleak, abandoned atmosphere. This is a distant place beyond reach of help, Moscow only being referred to vaguely, and it's envoy of aid in the shape of Dmitri being ineffective. At first glance Leviathan is a physically enclosed story, never leaving this small town. However a scale of the metaphorical ground in which it sits is continually given in references to the Book of Job, and in images which take the lonely forms of misted roads, wide black waters, and the timeless, bleached ribcage of a dead whale. Yet there is always a hint of this serene and slightly malevolent background being shattered. Roma throws pebbles into the still water and stares down the skeleton. Slow cars emerge from the fog. The movie maintains this relationship between setting and the characters' place on it's edge as one of testing boundaries up to Lilya's ultimate despair in front of the breakers lashing out of the bay.
The worthiness of an easy religious answer is also undermined with children drinking and smoking in the shell of a ruined chapel. Kolya slumps drunk beside them and looks up to the roof to see a cord hanging from the rafters. Across town as the priest preaches about, "truth", to a pristinely decorated nave, a child looks up to see the same rope from this more prosperous church. These small visual mysteries cover Leviathan, weaving a land bordering on fable, yet with real people walking it's maze of ancient morals. With an inevitable conclusion the movie comes full circle in it's imagery, back to the sea where it all began, and along with vodka and corruption, it is this mysterious presence which remains.
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