By Jeff Meyers
“Everything is everyone’s fault.”
Of the five foreign language films nominated for an Oscar this year, Leviathan is a rarity, a movie fueled by angry condemnation and sardonic contempt rather than poetic uplift or mournful reminiscence. You want to root for its success simply because it’s a cinematic voice of rebellion, daring its host country, and the entire Academy, to consider the soul-crushing corruption that infects Russian culture — and, frankly, most of humanity. Whether it’s the church, local bureaucrats, Putin’s government, or the drunken, selfish masses, director Andrey Zvyagintsev points his damning finger at everyone.
With that kind of approach, it didn’t have a chance in hell of taking home a coveted statue. Set in the breathtaking northwest coast of Russia, near the Finnish border, Leviathan follows the Job-like travails of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a hot-headed mechanic whose sprawling seaside home — built by ancestors generations ago — has become a target of acquisition for the town’s tyrannical mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who sees it as the lynchpin in his crooked development schemes. With a belly full of pride (and lots of vodka), Kolya challenges the corrupt forces conspiring to steal his land, recruiting Dmitri, an old army buddy who has become a slick Moscow lawyer, to help. Unfortunately, the more Kolya resists, the harder and harsher Vadim becomes, sending both into a spiral of neurotically macho confrontations.
Further complicating things is that Kolya’s young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), becomes attracted to Dmitri, while Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), his disaffected teenage son from a previous marriage, seethes with resentment about his new family. With plenty of stupidity, betrayal, and petty cruelty to go around, Leviathan builds, as most Russian stories do, toward tragedy. But not without first indulging in some dark Chekhovian humor.
From the mayor’s thuggish, bantering cronies to the hypocrisies of church leaders, Zvyagintsev paints a scathingly acerbic portrait of small-time corruption.
Leviathan‘s pace is slow — maybe too slow — but Zvyagintsev squeezes out a queasy form of suspense from the soul-crushing obstacles he keeps hurling at his righteous protagonist. For more than two hours, Kolya and those around him endure one misfortune after another, forcing you to wonder whether there will ever be any relief. Every time you think you know where the plot is heading, the characters blindside you with an impulsively bad choice. Even the lovely Lilya, who seems to notice so much of what the others miss, ends up undone. It’s her fate that may ultimately disturb the most.
Leviathan is outraged and cynical, the work of a talented filmmaker who is out to condemn a nation he clearly loves. There simply aren’t enough filmmakers like this anymore, artists who know how to harness their rage into dramatically compelling, if emotionally exhausting, movies. Zvyagintsev’s references may be uniquely Russian, but his exploration of how ordinary people get fucked by the powerful is universal.
Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev; writ. Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev; feat. Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Roman Madyanov. Opens March 6 at Santikos Bijou. ★★★★★
Since 1947, when the Academy Awards first started including foreign language films (a formal competitive category was created in 1956), Russian films have been nominated 15 times (nine as the Soviet Union) and taken home the Oscar just four times. The last was more than 20 years ago with 1994’s Burnt by the Sun.
This year, Siberian-born Andrey Zvyagintsev’s scathingly bitter Leviathan was predicted to triumph over four strong nominees after taking home Best Foreign-Language Film at the Golden Globes. Pawe Pawlikowski’s Ida ended up winning.
The soldier-turned-actor-turned-director has been on an upward trajectory since his 2003 debut The Return took home the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Zvyagintsev’s 2011 film Elena made clear that he was willing to confront the corruption that has infected his country.
Social consciousness and critique fuel Zvyagintsev’s work, which has won him no favors with officials back home. Though it paints a bleak portrait of Russian society, the film was actually inspired by Coloradan Marvin Heemeyer, who demolished several buildings then killed himself after losing a zoning dispute. Nevertheless, Leviathan was, at first, denied a formal release in its homeland, as conservatives condemned its views and even called for it to be banned. But after the Golden Globes win, and an estimated 1.5 million Russians downloaded it illegally, the film found its way onto nearly 700 screens. Still, things look far from rosy for the 51-year-old filmmaker who was once a street janitor. Leviathan received 35 percent of its budget from the Ministry Of Culture. When asked whether the ministry would help fund Zvyagintsev’s next film, its current leader answered, “All flowers can grow, but we only water the ones we like.”