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'Leviathan' Shows A Film And Filmmaker Unafraid Of Big Questions

Alexey Serebryakov as Kolya in <em>Leviathan</em>.
Anna Matveeva
Sony Pictures Classics
Alexey Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan.

In Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev's melodrama about a motor mechanic's desperate struggle to hang on to home and family in the New Russia, a photograph of Vladimir Putin gazes impassively down from a wall in the office of a corrupt mayor. And perhaps we should be glad that the country retains enough freedom of expression for a movie that's partly about official thuggery to win funding from the Ministry of Culture — even if the director later said official response to the final product was not so warm. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to call Leviathan an optimistic vision of Russia's present or its future, to say nothing of the prospects for humanity in general. Job, the Bible's most resilient figure, is sorely needed and often invoked.

Like Zvyagintsev's earlier movies — The Return, The Banishment and ElenaLeviathan roams around a personal tragedy with immediate roots in a broken society, and more ancient ones in the spiritual dilemmas of mankind. Beyond his heroic physique, there's nothing immediately noble about Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov), a hotheaded intermittent drunk living with his beautiful second wife, Lilya (Elena Liadova), and his angry teenage son Roma (Sergey Pochodaev) in the comfortable house he built himself. Their modest home, which looks out on a rocky shoreline of severe but serene beauty in provincial Northern Russia, is prime real estate, and Kolya has drafted his old army friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a hotshot Moscow lawyer, to help him fight eviction by the town's thoroughly bent mayor, Vadim, who may or may not want to build a fancy dacha for himself on the disputed lot.

In the more than two hours of legal, gangster and love-triangle strife that follow, a picture moves into focus of post-Soviet Russia as a hellhole riddled with official corruption, bullying and betrayal that sinks malign roots into the bonds between friends, family and lovers. The mayor, a boor with overflowing appetites wonderfully played by Roman Madianov, is by no means the only villain of the piece. The rot extends to cops, attorneys, a pontificating priest all too well-connected in the corridors of power. And then there's Kolya, no saint himself, determined to hang on to his autonomy yet all too willing to yield it to others who may abuse his trust.

The austere landscape in Leviathan is ravishing. Now and then we catch a glimpse of the massive skeleton of what looks to be a whale, beached on the shore alongside the husks of broken or abandoned boats. It takes another priest, more committed than his colleague to his vows of poverty and humility, to explain to Kolya the meaning of Leviathan, a monster referred to as a creature of enormous yet ambiguous power in the Book of Job.

Zvyagintsev is too subtle a director to tip his hand as to whether the behemoth is baleful or benign. Yet he leaves us in little doubt about his distaste for the venal evils he sees as stacking up in the homeland he has said he will never abandon. At a time when it's often considered naive or uncool to address moral or philosophical quandaries in cinema, it's a big thrill to find a director who's still passionate about the question, "How shall we live?"

In every film he's made, Zvyagintsev outs himself, if obliquely, as a noninstitutional Christian purist of the old Russian school. I can't think of a filmmaker today who's less attuned to the sensibilities of Western secular humanism — or one who's more lauded by liberal cinephiles throughout the Western World. Even as the Russian youth of today downloads The Interview, the old-timers back home must worship the ground he walks on. It's a little disturbing to contemplate that President Putin might too.

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Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.