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‘Leviathan’ has beautiful elements, but pace kills it

Date: 7/2/2015

In this week’s edition of the film review column, I’ll continue looking at Academy nominated foreign films.


At a key point in this Russian drama, a priest quotes a passage from the Book of Job to the film’s central figure Kolya:  “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?”

That sort of sums up this nearly two and half hour drama about a man trying to preserve his home and land from a greedy mayor and losing at every step.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s difficult to discuss this film without some spoilers.

Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) is on the losing side of his fight. The local mayor has designs on the house in which several generations of his family have lived in a northern coastal town. Apparently Kolya has had his last legal fight, but he has one more chance when he calls in an old Army buddy Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) who is now a prominent attorney in Moscow.

Kolya drinks way too much and has rough relationships with his second wife Lilya (Elana Lyadova) and his teenage son. His drinking also makes his temper even worse. He’s no ideal hero.

Dima has a folder of serious dirt against the mayor, Vadim, (Roman Madyanov) and believes he can use it to get him to pay Kolya what the property is worth if not backing off entirely.

It is at this point that Kolya’s story starts sliding quickly downhill. Just when you think his situation couldn’t get worse, it does.

I applaud director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev for daring to portray this segment of modern Russian life in such a raw unguarded way. Apparently it didn’t earn him many points in certain quarters back home.

There was a great scene about the paradox of living in Russia. At a “picnic,” Kolya and his friends drink vodka and target shoot. One of his buddies has brought framed pictures of Russian leaders starting with Lenin. They all laugh about it.

They clearly understand the system under which they live and aren’t too pleased and yet they also feel fairly powerless to change it.

This is what makes Kolya’s struggle interesting. He is making a stand.

I’m sure the conversations between Vadim and the local Orthodox bishop also were the subject of some controversy. The bishop advises Vadim, but doesn’t question how he has achieved his wealth and power. The bishop’s sermon at the end of the film about the power of truth is highly ironic as it’s clear he is not interested in the truth.

The film has a bleak beauty to it with many shots of the coastal environment. A bleached whale skeleton sitting in backwater underscores the theme of the film.

It is the pacing that was a problem for me. Zvyagintsev has a habit of not showing key passages of the narrative and instead had characters speak about what had happened. He also likes to hold onto shots in which the action has happened way too long.

This is a serious film that certainly left me a little depressed.