“Leviathan” is the fourth film from Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev and it is another absolute stellar piece of work. A daring attack on the corruption embedded within Russian politics, this is a tale that is small at heart, but whose ideas are grand.
Set in a small coastal town somewhere in Russia, Nikolay and his wife Lilya live on a property by the water, built on the land that has belonged in Nikolay's family for generations. Each generation passes ownership onto the next, and Nikolay has lived there all of his life. When “Leviathan” begins though, we find out that Nikolay is in a bitter battle against the town's mayor, who wants the land for his own purposes. Up against the corrupt judicial system of the town, it appears Nikolay does not have a chance at keeping what is rightfully his especially when he is told that his final appeal has been denied. Just as everything seems lost, in walks Dmitriy, one of Nikolay's old buddies from his army days, who also happens to currently work as a lawyer in Moscow. Dmitriy brings with him a dossier of dirt on the man threatening his friend, and the two soon decide that since all lawful attempts at bringing this matter to a close have failed that they have to take a different tact. It isn't long before Dmitriy makes the Mayor aware of the information they have attained, and begins to blackmail him in an attempt to benefit his friends. While initially it appears the tables have been turned on the Mayor, unfortunately Dmitriy's arrival is the catalyst for a continuing number of devastating misfortunes that befall Nikolay, who by the end of it all would wish that all he had to worry about was just the loss of his land.
As usual for a film from Andrei Zvyagintsev, “Leviathan” comes across as an angry piece of art. It comes across loud and clear, that he is not at all happy with the corruption that exists in today's Russia, and this is the primary focus of the film. Here he looks at all forms of corruption, not just those of a political nature, as he also examines the corruption of friendship, the corruption of a marriage, the corruption of one's self and their morals, and a corruption of the soul. Zvyagintsev also overtly criticises the Church (as an institution) and those that are willing to commit atrocities in God's name. In my opinion, he is not at all attacking religion nor people with faith, as he represents these people as everyday people attempting to live as best they can. Rather it is the hypocrisy of the Church and the actions that they are apart of, all under the guise of God's ultimate plan, as well as the unhealthy relationship between the country's politics and religion, which has been created in an attempt to hold onto power for as long as possible.
While that may sound like quite strong and heady stuff for a film, it has been beautifully woven into this tale of an everyman just trying to keep his land. Whilst every part of the film is impeccably put together, it is the performances from the whole cast that make “Leviathan” the powerful experience it is. There is not a performance out of place, but the four leads are just outstanding. Aleksey Serebryakov as Nikolay covers almost every emotion possible and never puts a foot wrong. It is his character that evolves the most throughout the film, and Serebryakov portrays him as someone who is very extroverted with his emotions; the audience always knows how he is feeling, and yet this lack of subtlety is never a negative as we witness this man feeling the highest of highs, as well as the despairing look of a man when he knows that he is defeated. Vladimir Vdovichenkov as Nikolay's lawyer friend Dmitriy initially comes across as the most noble of characters, there only to help out a friend in need, and he also brings an air of arrogance to his character. He always feels in control and that he has every step worked out to the nth degree, but this facade slowly begins to crumble when he is first challenged, and then when it appears that the reason he is helping his friend may not be as innocent as first thought. In regards to the Mayor, Roman Madyanov is sufficiently slimy in the role, and I thought he was just fantastic in a brief scene when he antagonises Nikolay whilst drunk. In my review for “Elena” (Zvyagintsev's previous film), I mentioned how blown away I was by Elena Lyadova's performance even though she was only in a few scenes. Well Zvyagintsev has cast Lyadova in the key role of Nikolay's wife, Lilya, and once again she steals the film. She is just mesmerising whenever she is on screen, and yet her performance is completely different from the one she gave in “Elena”. This is a much more internal performance, as she relies less on dialogue, rather she shows everything through the emotions on her face. This is not a glamorous role at all, as she always looks tired, withdrawn and it is obvious that the whole ordeal has taken its toll on her. Eventually we also learn that Lilya is also carrying around an enormous amount of guilt, although I will not reveal why she feels this way.
Like all of Andrei Zvyagintsev's films, “Leviathan” is impeccably shot. His compositions always seem to be perfect, as if that is the only place the camera could have gone. Shot by his long-time cinematographer, Mikhail Krichman, the duo have come up with a muted colour scheme this time with bursts of blue from time to time. Whilst the images within “Leviathan” are not as obviously beautiful as those in “Elena”, there is no doubt when you are watching the film that you are in the hands of a visual master, but one who prefers the images to enhance the storytelling rather than overpower it.
So what of the title itself? The word “Leviathan” conjures images of mythical monsters but alas none are present within the film itself. Rather the “leviathan” of the film is the overwhelming power of corruption, so the title is an allegorical one as opposed to a literal one. However, the recurring image of a dead whale's skeleton that lives on the beach near the house also reminds the viewer of the mythical beast. The other mention of a leviathan in the film has to do with the Book of Job, that is referenced a number of times, sometimes directly (like when Nikolay meets with the local priest), or the fact that Nikolay suffers a downward struggle through life just like Job himself.
Overall, “Leviathan” is another fantastic film from one of the greatest directors currently working in the medium today. Whilst the film may be a tad long, with it losing momentum briefly before the friends embark on a picnic to celebrate a birthday, it is always entertaining, and intelligently made. Zvyagintsev has made an angry piece in regards to today's Russia and the corruption he believes that is destroying it. At the end of the day, it appears that he is saying no matter how hard you try, a normal individual can never come out on top in a corrupt society, which is quite the damning thought.