DirkH’s review published on Letterboxd:
One of the sincerest films I've ever seen, a quality earning it an immediate spot amongst my favourite films of all time.
Leviathan is a bleak condemnation of orthodox religion, the pettiness of self gain and the corruptive nature of power. It is a film that tells its story with an unrelenting and startling sincerity, something I greatly admire in any film, but done to the quality it is done here, it left me angry, melancholic, empty, moved and above all deeply impressed.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev and his team have crafted a film that is paced astonishingly well and looks breathtaking. The cold, grey cinematography and the impeccable attention to detail in creating this slice of Russian life both add to the strength of the central themes and to the consistently present undercurrent of dread in the narrative. The performances Zvyagintsev gets out of his cast are paramount to why this film packs such a punch. There isn't a fake performance there. Understated, natural and with tremendous restraint, the performances provide the soul searing humanity in this inhumane tale.
And what a tale it is. Told with unflinching courage, Leviathan criticizes the society from which it stems without mercy. The plot is very much a two parter. First we are shown the hard life in a poor, dilapidated coastal village in the north of Russia. The Vodka flows abundantly and life is monotonous. At the centre lives our protagonist with his son and his wife, desperately trying to keep hold of the house he has built with his own hands as the town's mayor wants to tear it down. As simple as this premise may sound, and the first half of the film is pretty straightforward, it lays the foundation for the devastating allegorical layer of the second half of the film.
There is a pivotal moment in the film. A catalyst that the first hour builds up to ever so subtly. Zvyagintsev keeps handing out these foreshadowing pinpricks that create discomfort and had me shifting in my seat for no apparent reason. After that pivotal moment, which is handled with refreshing restraint, it soars off to hammer home its point with grim determination.
Leviathan, the devil, evil, whatever you want to call it, it is everywhere. It has its tentacles in our nature, in our society, in our beliefs. We are Leviathan. Zvyagintsev transposed this idea over this village and the people that inhabit it. In doing so he shows us humans at their most mean spirited, selfish and vile. From the people representing administrative authority to spiritual authority, they are all insincere, manipulative and self centred individuals that will do anything to maintain their influence and power. The bleakness of this side of Russian society is a perfect backdrop to convey this harrowing message.
But there's still more to it. There is one man with sincere motives in this story. And in a very revealing conversation he has with the priest, it becomes clear that what we are watching is a retelling of the book of Job, but not as an affirmation of faith. The book of Job basically deals with the question: Why do the righteous suffer? Job, after much hardship, comes to peace with that question. Our protagonist Kolya never gets that reward. I believe that in the Old Testament it is written that God is there to control the beast Leviathan and that the righteous will feast on its flesh. I can't help but feel that in this small town God has let Leviathan loose and has it speak in His name. The way this film essentially lays bare everything wrong with narrow minded religious conviction that doesn't really deal with faith but more with rituals and appearance and the way it condemns our inherent desires to meet our own needs first, completely bowled me over.
A final word on the amazing imagery. You've all seen that film poster. That juxtaposition of death and distraught youth was an amazing moment. There is also the ever present vitality of the ocean set against the leeched out life in the village. Leviathan is out there, swimming, alive, there really is no escape. And then there's the weather. It's subtle, but it becomes increasingly worse, adding to that gut feeling that things will go belly up.
Leviathan is not an easy film and I'm glad it isn't. Films as ambitious and courageous as this shouldn't be. What I do know is that it won't leave my mind and for that rare gift I thank it.