Format: DVD from netFlix on laptop.
Don’t forget that; alcohol is a theme in Leviafan. Evidently, the actors actually drank in a number of the scenes and frequently the takes used were after multiple attempts at the scene, so they were actually inebriated. This is certainly why they seem to be exemplary at acting like drunks. They really look the part.
Leviafan is more or less a modern retelling of the biblical story of Job. A man named Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) lives in a small northern coastal town with his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), his son from his first marriage. Kolya is a car mechanic who seems to be taken advantage of by his friends when it comes to getting their cars repaired.
As the film starts, we’re already in the middle of the controversy that drives the entire film. Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the local mayor, has laid a claim to expropriate Kolya’s land for a communication tower and has arranged to drastically underpay for the actual value of the land. Kolya is convinced that Vadim actually wants the land to build a house for himself, and Kolya has fought the expropriation every step of the way. He’s enlisted his friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a former army buddy turned connected Moscow lawyer to help him.
What ensues is everything going wrong for Kolya. He loses his latest appeal, giving Vadim the right to the house. Dima has used his contacts to dig up dirt on Vadim to at least keep him temporarily off Kolya’s land and to get more money for his friend. Kolya’s temper gets him arrested, an event that leaves Lilya free to begin an affair with Dima, evidently to help her deal with the intense boredom of her own life. And from there, things spiral out of control with violence, death, recriminations, and massive amounts of drunkenness.
Leviafan is very carefully constructed. There is a reason that the two people most dedicated to putting Kolya in his place and stealing his land are involved in the government and the church, for instance. There is a palpable hypocrisy in the actions of Vadim and of the local church leaders who continue to urge Vadim to use what power he has to claim the land fo whatever reasons he wants. The ultimate reason for the land grab trns out to be so cynical that it’s difficult to believe.
This measured hypocrisy is one of the aspects of Leviafan that work throughout the film. Once we see the depths of the duplicity on offer here, the closing scene becomes something not of faith and idealism but of crass insincerity. If nothing else, Leviafan is an indictment of anyone who wields power in the life of another person, or at least those who do without ever considering the consequences on another human being.
For a film were every plont in the plot serves to destroy the life of its principle character, Leviafan allows the tory to play itself out. Clearly the hypocrisy is called out, but is it condemned? I don’t think so. Instead, its dealt with in a way that seems uniquely Russian. There is no character surprised much by how the events turned out. Kolya is set up from the beginning as a character who is little more than a cinematic railroad spike to be driven mercilessly into the ground. There’s no pity here. Instead, it is stark reality show to us clinically and without unnecessary melodrama or fanfare.
It’s also a beautiful film. The shot above with Roma sitting on a rock near the massive skeleton of a whale is perhaps the most iconic, but there are plenty of beautiful shots here. The story may be an ugly one, but Leviafan tells it beautifully.
For the record, I’ve only seen two of the movies that were nominated for Best Foreign Feature in the most recent Oscar race. I can say without having seen the others that the wrong film won that award. While almost twice as long as Ida, this is a better film in almost every way. There were a lot of places for Leviafan to go wrong, and it simply doesn’t.
Why to watch Leviafan: A story of how power can and does affect all of us.
Why not to watch: It’s Russian, which means it’s long and nothing good happens.