Russia Today?: Leviathan

12/17/2014 4:52 PM |
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Opens December 25

Remember—Leviathan is not a documentary. Foreign films released—and widely seen—stateside run the risk, in our large and guileful land, of being mistaken for nonfiction, although nobody who saw them took Andrey Zvyagintsev’s first two tries, The Return and The Banishment, as commentary on Russia today. Both were set in a Someplace, Europe, where Russian is spoken but people are preoccupied with purely personal—let’s say supranational—concerns: faith, fidelity, filial and familial dues.

But Zvyagintsev’s fourth, Leviathan, (like the 2011 Elena), is frankly set near the Barents Sea, and shot near Murmansk. But even when moored to the mundane, his interest in religious allegory remains steady. Tarkovsky’s last movie, The Sacrifice, was dedicated to his son (another Andrei), but it’s Zvyagintsev who’s been designated the man’s spiritual heir—apt, given that his themes here are Son and Spirit (and, more distressingly, original sin—his women never fare well). What Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), the Job character in Leviathan, wants to know is where God has gone.

Kolya’s in the process of losing his family home to a swinish mayor, who one night drunkenly swings by the house with his bodyguards, to taunt Kolya, his troubled young wife Lilya (Elena Liadova), and visiting friend Dmitri (Vlad Vdovichenkov), an atheist Moscow lawyer with a strong claim to being the protagonist, at least for the first eighty minutes of the film. Dmitri may have leverage even the mayor must respect, but since it’s Russia, everything and everybody quickly rolls downhill, through barbed wire and briars.

One, possibly more accurate, way of looking at Leviathan—and you should look, do look—is not as lightly fictionalized reality, but as a kind of inverted neorealist film. If in Russia lately facts are fluid (see: Nothing is True and Everything is Possible), then talented professional actors are essentially interchangeable with the characters they portray; neither exist in any meaningful way as far as the government is concerned. And by arming his characters with gappy biographies and oblique motivations, Zvyagintsev is attempting to restore humanity to them—the right to be, meaning to be unknowable.

The English subtitles can’t do the cursing justice; this is discourse so deeply brutal even a casual remark stings like—forgive me—vodka in the wound. Luckily Mikhail Krichman, Zvyagintsev’s usual cinematographer, is just the man to film the icy bay, the weedy barren town, the burnt-out church—and later another one, impossibly lavish—and the hulking skeleton of a giant whale, which rests in the low tide and is, on the question of God’s whereabouts, mute.