Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Writers: Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Roman Madyanov, Vladimir Vdovichenkov
Producers: Sergey Melkumov, Alexander Rodnyansky
Running Time: 136 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The stereotype of Russian films (in my mind at least) tends to be formidably grim, slow and intellectual or philosophical slogs through barren landscapes. The shadow of Tarkovsky looms large over the last 40-50 years of the country's cinematic output and even though my only experience of the great director was a very positive one (I loved Andrei Rublev), I'm still never in a rush to put on any of his films. Because of this, on top of the fact that I was a little disappointed by Andrey Zvyagintsev's The Return, I've been putting off watching his latest film, Leviathan, for a while. It has received some phenomenally good reviews and stacks of awards, so I really wanted to see it, but I struggled to drum up excitement about a film I expected to be heavy going throughout. Nevertheless, bound by my blogging duty, I ventured forth (a couple of weeks late – sorry Artificial Eye!) and although the film holds a number of the attributes I was put off by, I needn't have been worried.
Leviathan adapts elements from the story of Job, another biblical story of Naboth's Vineyard and the true story of Marvin Heemeyer in the United States to form a tragic tale of one man's struggle against a corrupt system of power (to quote the press blurb).
Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) lives in a Russian coastal town with his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). The local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), has a compulsory purchase order to seize Kolya's land and property for a new development (which we don't know the details of until the end of the film), so Kolya hires a lawyer friend from Moscow, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to fight his corner. Digging up some dirt on the mayor, Dmitriy seems to give Kolya the upper hand, but through corruption, violence, personal drama and Kolya's own pig-headedness, everything inevitably comes crashing down until he is left with nothing.
So yes, this is a weighty piece of Russian gloom as expected, but it's a bloody good one. There's a quiet sense of doom and menace throughout, aided by repeated placements of guns in scenes, the slow, moody tone and the oppressively dark colour palette. No characters are truly likeable either, with most of them hard-drinking, stubborn and aggressive. Dmitriy comes close to being a 'nice guy', but is still rather flawed and makes some poor decisions as the film goes on. Lilya is the most sympathetic character, but she's so broken from the start that it's hard to warm to her. However, there are elements of slight and subversive humour running throughout the film as well as a naturalism which give the film added humanity.
Saying that, I still felt a little cold towards it all. I can't fault the filmmaking, it's an exceptionally well directed, performed and presented piece, but I didn't feel as emotionally invested as I'd have liked. That would be my only criticism really. The film still drew me in and remained compelling, even though I didn't fully connect with the characters and overall felt it was a little too long.
On top of being incredibly well crafted, there is plenty of meat to chew on too. The film is a damning portrait of modern Russia, showing how the pyramid of power in the country crushes those at the bottom, with the nation's history being bulldozed down or left to rot to make way for a shiny facade to gloss over any inherent problems. A blunt piece of satire even sees a group of characters using portraits of Russian/Soviet leaders for target practise. This negative view of the country, which is known for its tight control, is made all the more bold when you realise that the film was partly funded by Russia's Ministry of Culture. Quite how Zvyagintsev got away with it is anyone's guess and he has come under criticism since, but it makes for powerful viewing.
So with brains and brawn to back up the film's expert construction, it's clear to see why Leviathan has picked up so much acclaim since its release last year. It is astonishingly good, I just found it a little difficult to connect to on a personal level, which is why I won't give it the highest of marks. Nevertheless, it's easy to recommend even if, like me, you have reservations.
Leviathan is out on now on Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by Artificial Eye. I watched the DVD version and the picture and sound quality were decent.
You get a decent amount of special features too. There's a classy 28 minute making of, a 23 minute interview with the director and 21 minutes worth of deleted scenes on top of the obligatory trailer (do they really need to be on every release? Does anyone ever watch them?).