Why should you suffer through a 140-minute Russian film that is basically a contemporary remake of The Book of Job? Because it’s a stupendous piece of work, that’s why, and because it represents the kind of challenging, intimate filmmaking that transcends language and borders. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena) puts contemporary Russia, as up-to-the-minute as Putin and Pussy Riot, under the microscope in Leviathan. Don’t be misled by the film’s small town setting, a fishing community in northern Russia; Zvyagintsev is using the problems of a single family to expose the bruised soul of a nation.
This is the story of one man, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov, striking chords that go deep and true), whose family has lived for generations by the Barents Sea in a village where the skeletal remains of whales and ships litter the landscape. Kolya lives there now with his son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and his second wife Lilya (the seductive, mysterious Elena Lyadova). He runs an auto-repair shop without much incident until the compromised state and the orthodox church descend on him like plagues. The larcenous mayor, Vadim (a superb Roman Maydanov), uses civil and church law to take Kolya’s land by right of eminent domain. Luckily, Kolya has a lawyer acquaintance, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), who travels from Moscow to show these local sharks what’s what, even if takes blackmail and a face-off with the Mob.
Without spoiling a film in which adultery, betrayal and a maybe murder all figure in the telling, be assured you won’t want to miss a thing. That demands careful attention to Zvyagintsev’s densely packed widescreen frames. Leviathan is sometimes too ambiguous for its own good, but between bouts of fighting, illicit sex and prodigious vodka swilling, the film looks with humor and heartbreak on a working class that’s not getting satisfying answers from God or the courts. The performances are ferociously fine, the camerawork from Mikhail Krichman makes poetry of light and its absence, the music from Philip Glass’s 1983 opera Akhnaten galvanizes, and Zvyagintsev gives biblical scope to a tale that draws meaning from the smallest details. Leviathan brushes harsh reality with cinematic grandeur and marks Zvyagintsev as a world-class talent.