A stirringly grim, Jobian tale set on the bleak, beautiful coast of Russia's Barents Sea, Leviathan - one of Oscar's five foreign-language best picture contenders - is a story of political and spiritual corruption, of men and women accustomed to power, and of others fighting against it.
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return), Leviathan opens with shots of craggy coves, crashing waves, and the ghostly hulls of broken ships, all to a brooding Philip Glass score. It moves then with slow determination toward a crushing finale, capturing the codependent relationship between citizens and state - a relationship that now, with Putin's portrait staring down from government offices, doesn't seem all that different from the days when Stalin, or Khrushchev, or Brezhnev ruled.
Zvyagintsev's searing drama addresses these broad themes on an intimate scale. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a car mechanic who lives with his wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his teenage son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), in a house that looks out over a small harbor. It's a scenic perch, a property that has remained in Kolya's family for generations - he takes out a framed sepia photograph to show how it appeared decades past. But the mayor of the town, Vadim (Roman Madianov), wants Kolya's land and has used the bureaucratic machinations of his office to seize control.
Kolya's old friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a lawyer, comes north from Moscow to help in the legal appeals. Standing before a trio of judges, Kolya and Dmitri listen as the long history of their challenges are recounted in quick, numbing tones, and as the latest appeal is denied. But Dmitri believes he holds a trump card: a dossier documenting the mayor's sordid resumé of kickbacks, bribes, collusion, and who knows what else. "It's a horror movie with you in the lead," the lawyer tells the pol, confronting him in his office. You can see the air escape from Vadim's lungs as he surveys the evidence against him.
How do men act in the face of doom? Well, some seek comfort from the church, and it is there that Vadim goes, to be counseled by his counterpart, the reigning priest - a lecture about power, those who have it, those who know how to use it.
Leviathan has the brute, brooding force of much Russian film - and literature. People stare off at the sea pulling on cigarettes, clutching the necks of their vodka bottles. The walls of apartments and hotel rooms are sad. The class divide - the workers, the politicians, the police - is marked. And woe to those who try to bridge it.
But the haunting mastery of Leviathan comes not from these broad indictments of a social order, but from the specifics of the performances, the actors wearing their hurt and rage, their defiance and dread, like well-worn clothing.
You may ask why you need to subject yourself to this inexorable gloom. That is, why buy a ticket? Because there is something timeless, and telling, in this tragedy. Something that shakes us, still, to our core.
Leviathan ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. With Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Liadova, Roman Madianov. In Russian with subtitles. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 2 hours, 21 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, sex, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five. EndText