Leviathan ★★★★★

“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?” – Book of Job

The title of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s fourth feature is rich in religious and political allegory, referring to a biblical sea creature and Thomas Hobbes famous polemic on the state as social contract. In his bleak tale of the exercising of small-town corruption going hand in glove with hypocritical religious piety, Zvyagintsev paints a richly allusive picture that is both graceful and incendiary.

Kolya is a simple ex-soldier who has carved a living from his handiness as a mechanic, and lives in a home by the sea he is proud to have built with his bare hands. The corrupt local mayor Vadim had served him with what amounts to a compulsory purchase order as he fancies the land for building his own mayoral residence. The amount given in recompense grossly undervalues the land and Kolya fails in his appeal against it. His old army friend Dima, now a respected lawyer in Moscow arrives to aid, carrying a fat dossier of incriminating documents against Vadim. The film examines Kolya’s strained relationship with his troubled son and second wife, and his Job-like treatment at the hands of local corruption, and ultimate betrayal by those he regards as friends.

Leviathan is a gruelling, yet potent and beautiful film. The acting is immaculate, with a standout being Roman Madyanov as the repulsive, drunken, bullying Vadim – a boorish low-level official who has taken to power with similar enthusiasm as he has taken to drink. He could have been a one-note character, but he is such a compelling presence that that is easily overcome. In fact, all of the characters are deeply flawed individuals, and that is part of what makes the film such a hard watch at times.

Not only are the characters occasionally hard to root for, but the film’s tone of ruin, and of oppressive state and clerical Behemoths crushing individuality under their heel means that there is very little light in amongst the gloom, beside some cynical laughs and nods to old regimes. That said; it is an astounding work of art. The allegories are easy to grasp without being massively on the nose. The remarkable shot of the distressed boy beside the bleached skeleton of a whale suggests that the very institutions being criticised are themselves facing possible extinction. Yet once again, a stunning shot of a bulldozer’s grab tearing through a building looks for all the world like one of these great beasts rising from the sea to rip a life apart in the name of ‘progress’; and prevents us from an overly simplistic reading of Zvyagintsev’s metaphorical intentions.

If there is a flaw (and I don’t see the film’s bleakness as a flaw) it is, like the extraordinary Amour, a nigh-on perfect work that is so laser-guided in its intentions and exceptional in its execution that one can’t help but feel so devastated by it that is becomes difficult to imagine when one would ever feel suitably hardy enough to view it again. Its beauty certainly helps, mesmerisingly shot in long panoramic takes, yet it is ruthless in its view of petty, cruel humanity. Its parting coda of a Russian Orthodox sermon feels like you’re being kicked when you’re down, and is possible the most eloquently vicious church-based scene since the opening scene of Bergman’s less polemical, but just as downbeat Winter Light.

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