Leviathan ★★★★★

TIFF 2014 film #12

Reason for pick: Director Andrey Zvyagintsev, Elena

As my friends know, I usually go completely blind into films, especially at TIFF. My lovely wife does the hard work of picking based on our ( almost universally ) shared taste. Thus, I usually don’t go in with much anticipation. Leviathan was an exception. When I found out that it was on this year’s roster I was positively giddy. We had just watched Zvyagintsev’s Elena a few weeks ago, and I was amazed and refreshed at how well executed it was stylistically, narratively, and thematically.

Preceding the screening, director Zvyagintsev is introduced and bounds out onto the stage in a manner reminiscent of Roberto Benigni. This guy is just so damn enthusiastic! By way of an introduction to the film he rips into Russian for what must have been a solid two to three minutes; His poor, hapless, translator trying to interject every thirty seconds or so to no avail. My takeaway was that this is one of the most passionate directorial personalities I’ve seen since said Roberto Benigni.

The opening scene for Leviathan is as dramatic as that from Elena, but stylistically diametrically opposed. In Elena, cinematographer Mikhail Krichman goes for long, quiet, and observational. Here, he’s bold and animated, depicting the unstoppable power of nature. Krichman is not only at ease, but masterful in either technique. In both films, the opening shot sets the story in a way that can’t be verbalized.

The first act is a mishmash of acerbic disenchantment, comradery, solidarity, and wickedly dry humor. At one point I thought we were going to be treated to a dark as coal remake of the Australian classic The Castle. Oh, and drinking. Being a proud Canadian, I have to admit that our Russian friends have the drinking thing way way more down than we do. I just didn’t know where this film was going to go. I was entranced, but befuddled.

In Elena, it was easy to spot the themes that Zvyagintsev wanted to spotlight; the simplicity of identifying them part of his guile. For the life of me, for the entire first act I thought that Zvyagintsev was gleefully poking fun at my anticipation of theme; he was just simply realizing a slice-of-life Northern Russian style. Then, when he was finished toying with me, one of his ecclesiastic characters dropped the Job quote:

” Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
Will it make an agreement with you
for you to take it as your slave for life? “

A chill went down my spine. Everything before, and then everything afterwards made sense. My heart sank and I felt nothing but despair. And then the film ended.

At the Q and A afterwards, someone asked about the bleakness of the film. Zvyagintsev acknowledged the tone, but then said that in Russia there is a saying. Hope dies last. I almost cried.

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