There’s a lot going on just in the title of “Leviathan,” Russia’s nominee for the Oscar for best foreign language film.
Leviathan is the Bible’s term for whales, the huge sea creatures that once provided sustenance for the now-abandoned fishing village that is the film’s primary setting. Their massive bones still litter the sand, along with dozens of beached, decaying boats.
Leviathan is also the title of Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 book about the relationship of the individual to government and society.
In “Paradise Lost,” Milton employs the word to describe Satan’s powers.
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All of those references are fitting in the context of this exhausting film, which savagely picks apart the new world order of post-communist Russia.
In writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s multi-character drama, the local government tries to seize the property of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), who owns the last occupied house on a spit of land that once was home to a thriving fishing community. Now it is under the jurisdiction of the closest viable town.
Kolya lives with his second wife, Lilya (Elena Liadova), and his teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). He runs a car repair business out of his shed. The place is a dump, but at least it’s his dump.
Moreover, Kolya has a long-standing feud with the mayor, Vadim (Roman Madianov), who is not only forcing him to give up his land but is paying only a fraction of its worth.
To help him fight city hall, Kolya has employed the services of Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), an old army buddy who is now a hotshot Moscow lawyer. Dmitri has assembled a fat dossier of the mayor’s crimes and abuses; perhaps a blackmail threat will make the city back off.
Against this legal battle Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin explore several personal relationships as well as their view that corrupt communism has been replaced by crony capitalism and the theocratic dictatorship of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Nobody here is a white knight. The mayor travels with a pack of bulging bodyguards and is not above gangsterish tactics.
Kolya is a drunkard (most of the characters swill vodka with alarming gusto) with a hair-trigger temper. He loves his wife and son, but he’s perfectly ready to use his fist when simple argument doesn’t bring the desired effect.
The lawyer, Dmitri, seems to be the most solid citizen here, except that he has no aversion to cuckolding his friend.
And young Roma struggles to suppress his growing fear that his family is spinning out of control. One can forgive his forays into antisocial behavior.
The film gives each of these individuals their due, writing none off as either all good or all bad and allowing for remarkable depth.
The one sour note comes in “Leviathan’s” depiction of the church. The bishop is working with the mayor to grab Kolya’s land (their goal is not revealed until the very end of the film). That’s pretty accurate — in modern Russia the church has regained astonishing secular power. Members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot went to prison for criticizing religion and in fact appear in “Leviathan” during a TV news program.
But Zvyagintsev’s approach here feels heavy-handed. It’s almost as if the anti-religious stance of communist film has been transferred intact to the new independent Russian cinema. It feels like propaganda. A bit of nuance would have gone a long way here.
That said, “Leviathan” is an angry/mournful look at how the system — any system — works to grind down the little guy.
Pete Townshend of the Who got it right: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
(At Cinetopia, Glenwood Arts, Studio 30, Tivoli.)
In Russian with subtitles
“Leviathan” may have won the Golden Globe, but Poland’s “Ida” took the Academy Award for foreign language film. The drama, about a nun with a secret, played in KC theaters last year and is available on video now. The other nominees:
▪ “Wild Tales,” from Argentina, is a comedy involving mobsters and philandering grooms. It’s scheduled to arrive in KC March 27 and on video in May.
▪ “Timbuktu,” from Mauritania, deals with Islamic extremists. Expect it in KC in March.
▪ “Tangerines,” filmed in Estonia, takes place during the fall of the Soviet empire. No dates yet.