The Chinese have a saying – while we’re at foreign language films – ‘A tyrannical government is more ferocious than the tiger’. That Leviathan is selected as the official entry from Russia to the Oscar race baffles me. But I can also see those in power there just may not be bothered by small town corruptions which the film depicts, for they must be more focused on the larger picture that carries greater magnitude, the scenery in Crimea.
Leviathan, that monstrous beast the priest in the film quotes to the main character Kolya is from the book of Job in the Bible. While the context in the Biblical passage is about the Creator’s might over the huge creature, it is a metaphor with layered meaning in writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film: A citizen against a powerful mayor vying for his home property, and the monstrous beast inside the characters with which they all have to wrestle.
Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is an apt parallel of a modern day Job in the sense of the misfortunes he encounters. The little guy is no match for a greedy and powerful mayor and a corrupt system when it comes to holding on to what he legally owns, his home on a piece of land by the shoreline in the coastal town of Pribrezhny. Even his lawyer friend Dimitry (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who has come all the way from Moscow to advocate for him, falls victim to the small town mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov).
The seemingly idyllic setting of Kolya’s coastal home is apparently an illusion. The cinematography is stunning and probing at the same time, for apart from the scenic serenity, there are also broken and derelict boats discarded on the shore, as well as carcasses of sea creatures, in particular, a whale-like skeleton that we the audience would gasp upon seeing but that the local residents don’t even take a second look. Their lives are intertwined with the Leviathan, however skeletal its remains.
But Kolya is not Job. He is hotheaded and impulsive. Apart from fighting the external beast of the mayoral hostile take-over of his home property, Kolya has to keep his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) at bay from his lawyer friend Dimitry, as well as bring up teenaged son Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev) on a path he himself is at a loss in finding. The worst is yet to come though. We empathize with Kolya, a man so trapped, he is unable to find a way out other than drowning his misery in alcohol. The church is not helping either, why, its most powerful congregation member is the mayor himself.
Too far and remote a film to identify? The setting maybe, but not the story. Leviathan resonates with the human condition it depicts, the Leviathans within us that we have to wrestle wherever we may be. Not just Kolya, but every character is crying for a redemptive way out of his or her predicament, unless blind as the mayor who basks in his own schemes. With the nuanced performance of the cast, we have the pleasure to appreciate a production superbly crafted, and that’s what gratifies when watching a film well made, despite the subject matter.
Leviathan has won 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s Best Screenplay Award, and last month the Golden Globe’s Best Foreign Language Film. This Sunday at the Oscars, Leviathan has a good chance of grabbing the coveted prize in its category, Best Foreign Language Film of the Year.
My pick? Still rooting for Ida, for its positive choice at the end.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
My Reviews of 2015 Oscar Nominated Films: