Between Pussy Riot, the continued persecution of homosexuality, the Sochi Olympics and the invasion of the Ukraine, all eyes have been on Russia so far in 2014. And that’s been true at Cannes too. "The Search" examined previous Russian aggression in Chechnya, while "Maidan" took a ground’s eye view of events in Ukraine. But most hotly anticipated of all was "Leviathan" from director Andrei Zvyagintsev, who has had one of the most meteoric rises in world cinema. His 2003 debut "The Return" won the Golden Lion at Venice, 2007’s "The Banishment" picked up Best Actor at Cannes, and 2011’s "Elena" won the Special Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard. He’s back on the Croisette this year, promoted to the main Competition for his fourth, and grandest picture yet, "Leviathan," which has already been tipped by many for the Palme d’Or. And rightly so, because it’s absolutely fantastic.
In a small town on the Barents Sea in the northwest of Russia, mechanic Kolya (Alexei Serebryakov) lives in the home that’s been in his family for many generations with second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhadaev). But his home is under threat as mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) has been attempting to compulsorily purchase the land on which it stands, and Kolya is in the last phase of a legal battle against the local politician. Help is on the way through old friend Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), now a bigshot Moscow lawyer, who has come back to town. And if the appeal doesn’t work, he’s been assembling a dossier of dirt on Vadim that may cause the Mayor to reconsider, or at least pay a fair price for the land, rather than the measly 350,000 rubles (about $10,000) that he’s offering. But the attempted blackmail instead threatens to escalate the feud even further.
According to Zvyagintsev, the film is inspired by the Biblical story of Job, though you wouldn’t necessarily know that on the surface, as it’s fairly well disguised, with only a late-in-the-game reference by a local priest drawing attention to it. The roots of that are reflected in the relative simplicity of the tale, and yet the execution is sprawling and complex, almost novelistic, shifting perspective and constantly transforming itself into something unexpected. The Job comparison is one of the reasons that we felt the film had an almost Coen-ish streak to it. Like "A Serious Man," it’s a darkly comic tale of a flawed man being put through the grinder. There are even hints of film noir in places, though visually Tarkovsky is a more obvious starting point, and even classic Hollywood melodrama when it comes to the tone. But Zvyagintsev is very much his own beast, and this film even in comparison with the director’s earlier work is something quite different.
In part, it’s because he’s baring his political fangs in a much more obvious way. The film is really about contemporary Russia, the corruption of the current regime, exemplified by Vadim, who has a portrait of Putin on his wall (pictures of previous leaders are used as target practice by Kolya and his pals at one point, pointedly, and the double-meaning of the title, referring both to sea monsters and to Thomas Hobbes, is no accident), and of the increasingly insidious influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on the nation’s leaders. Given Putin’s feelings on dissent, and the partial-funding of the movie by a state body, it’s a brave move, and an incredibly vital one, giving the movie a savage, fiery quality to it that continues to sear long after it’s finished. And yet, it’s not just political point-scoring either. There’s a rich lyricism and poetry to the picture that promises more and more to unpack with every viewing.
Formally, Zvyagintsev is working very much in the slow cinema mold, but it’s our favourite variation of that. The film is in some ways a more obvious successor to "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" than Ceylan‘s own "Winter Sleep," matching the meditative rhythm and uncompromising artistry with a genuinely compelling story, and scenes as outright entertaining as anything we’ve seen in the festival. Some will find the director’s decisions as to what he shows and doesn’t show a touch frustrating, but for us, it’s the rare film for which we could have sat through another 45 minutes of, so immersed were we in the filmmaking. From wrecked boats and whale skeletons to Kolya’s home, which you come to know as intimately as your own, Zvyagintsev puts a living and breathing world on screen, with several scenes proving to be a masterclass in directing.
If there was ever any doubt as to Zvyagintsev’s position as one of world cinema’s foremost auteurs, it’s put to rest here. His filmmaking has always been superb, but he’s never taken on the state of his nation in the way he does here. And that makes "Leviathan" not just masterful but also hugely important. [A]