As waves crash ferociously against an imposing, rocky
shoreline—to the commanding sounds of Philip Glass’ music—Leviathan announces itself as a story of size and weight. But the
reason Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film is so powerful, and resonant, is that it deals
with ordinary people. As we come to know them, we recognize that their problems
reflect a world beyond the confines of their isolated seaside town in Northern
Leviathan isn’t an
easy film to summarize, nor can mere words capture the punch it packs. The
story begins simply enough: a hard-drinking auto repairman named Kolya is
fighting a crooked mayor who plans to seize his property and develop it. The
house and land have been in Kolya’s family for years; he lives there with his
wife and son, and doesn’t intend to leave. He’s summoned an old friend from
Moscow, who’s now a lawyer, to help him fight the case. But corruption is a way
of life in the community, and even the clever attorney has trouble outfoxing
the unscrupulous mayor and his loyal bureaucracy.
Kolya is not an easy man to root for: his epic drinking
fuels a fiery temper. He often acts irrationally, at the expense of his pretty
wife, who works at a local fish cannery, and son, who’s at an impressionable
age. But life in Russia—even in a town as inconsequential as this one—is filled
with ironies and contradictions that can’t always be explained.
This is a film of heartbreak and humor, fate and folly,
Shakespearean in its magnitude…yet despite its ambitions there is not an ounce
of pretense. Many observers have expressed surprise that a movie so openly
critical of authority could not only come from Russia but be chosen as the
country’s official submission for an Academy Award. Filmmaker Zvyagintsev (who
cowrote the screenplay with Oleg Negin) doesn’t see his work as political
commentary; he compares his leading character to Job. Just as that Biblical figure
endured one hardship after another, Kolya refuses to give up or give in,
despite the tragic consequences that result from his standoff.
Leviathan leaves the
viewer with much to think about and chew on. It’s serious but not ponderous, a superb
film that reveals itself one layer at a time and leaves a lasting impression.