Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev || Produced by: Alexander Rodynyansky
Screenplay by: Andrey Zvyagintsev, Oleg Negin || Starring: Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov, Sergey Pokhodaev
Music by: Andrey Dergachev, Philip Glass || Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman || Edited by: Anna Mass || Country: Russia || Language: Russian
Running Time: 141 minutes
Anyone who has ever read my writings on film knows I am a stickler for not only narrative pacing, convincing action, and meaningful cinematography, but also for political commentary that doesn’t talk down to its audience or tells them what to think. I don’t mind being challenged, and in fact often prefer films that challenge my preconceived notions of social structures, the human condition, and the nature of storytelling in general, so long as I am being challenged in a cinematic way.
In that light, my taking to a film like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a tad surprising given my limited patience for depressing, long-winded dramas about human suffering. Zyvagintsev’s films have been well received by both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Cannes Film Festival, sure, but my cautious regard to high-minded film critic circles is another running theme of this blog. So, what’s the deal with Leviathan?
The deal is the subtlety within its craft, namely its dark comedy, wry and almost unspoken political commentary, great pacing (always a plus in my book), and memorable framing. Leviathan is a 141-minute drama about the supposed pointlessness of faith, friendship, family, and perseverance, and how life can turn to shit in a flash regardless of one’s actions or intentions. Often times, people are just dealt a bad hand. Shit happens.
On second thought, maybe my affection for this film shouldn’t be such a mystery.
Leviathan follows the story of a working-class family in Teriberka, a rural coastal village in northern Russia. There, our protagonist, Koyla (Aleksei Serebryakov) works as a mechanic while fighting the expropriation of his land by the town’s mayor, played by Roman Madyanov. Koyla also struggles with keeping his dysfunctional family together, as his teenage son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodyaev) clashes with his second wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and seeks the help of his friend, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a hotshot lawyer from Moscow, to salvage his lifestyle.
If you think this has a happy ending, to quote a famous HBO character, you haven’t been paying attention. Things progress from bad to worse as Koyla’s personal and professional life collapse, thanks to both the evils of his fellow man as well as that aforementioned bad luck. Whether Leviathan is a critique of modern Russian political rule or elitist, corrupt organized religion, or simply a treatise on how bad things happen to good people, it is hard to say. One’s interpretation of the the dour, almost absurdist tragedies that befall Koyla and his family will vary, though for good reason and to the credit of Zvyagintsev’s and co-writer Oleg Negin’s intriguing screenplay. At the start of the film’s third act, Leviathan takes a turn from a downtrodden,”slice-of-life” narrative to the almost romanticized tragedy of its true self. This revelation of the film’s true colors is dark as fuck, but adds thematic weight and meaning to the earlier portions of the story.
As far as the film’s general direction is concerned, Zvyagintsev’s visual style is understated but powerful. His use of static shots, ambient noise, and a sparse soundtrack emphasize the powerlessness of our main characters, as well as the sad loneliness of their situation. In congruence with the narrative’s running theme of political commentary via black comedy and sheer irony, these static shots often juxtapose the distraught, hopeless breakdowns of our principle castmembers against the monotone, emotionless delivery of authority figures, including law enforcement, judges, attorneys, politicians, and members of the Russian Orthodox clergy. It is as sad as it is funny, which is a weird yet appropriate way to describe the film’s general tone.
This odd tonal balance Zvyagintsev conveys through visuals and the physical acting of his cast is perhaps Leviathan’s defining strength. This is an example of what I referred to earlier, me as a viewer being challenged in a cinematic way; my expectations of the film at its start and even at its midpoint were subverted in a way that not only made sense within the context of the story, but used cinematic tools to convey this development. Leviathan does this all the more subtly through its effective editing, which cuts off scenes at opportune moments whereby the tone changes within them.
Perhaps what frustrates me the most about the majority of slow, depressing, awards-friendly dramas is how they don’t use the visual language of film to articulate their thematic point, if they even have one at all. There is a point to Leviathan’s torturous, if not gruesome treatment of its characters, which is that bad things sometimes (… often) happen to good people, or people who don’t “deserve” those misfortunes, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Many times, disenfranchised folks are unable to defend themselves or each other, and shit just happens. This blunt message is well suited for the visual language of film, a fact writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev understands all too well. In closing, a character describing how shit hits the fan is nowhere near as memorable or as descriptive as seeing it hit right before our eyes.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Leviathan is a dark, depressing, yet not brooding drama that shows its black comedy and social commentary instead of telling it to you. I can always respect that dedication to filmic craft, even in a non-genre film that’s well over two hours in length. The film doesn’t exactly make for “fun” or light viewing, per se, but it’s never pointless nor without an unforgettable sense of humor.
? Job 1:1 – There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.