Leviathan

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Jonathan Richards

Leviathan , drama, rated R, in Rus­sian with sub­ti­tles, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3 chiles

It is not easy to fall into any ab­sur­dity, un­less it be by the length of an ac­count; wherein he may per­haps for­get what went be­fore . — from Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, 1651

On the out­skirts of a small fish­ing vil­lage on the north­west coast of Rus­sia and some­where near the Arc­tic Ocean, rot­ting hulls of old fish­ing boats rock gen­tly in the shal­low wa­ters of an in­let, and on a nearby strand loom the mas­sive bones of the skele­ton of a long-ago beached whale. Life is tough in th­ese parts, both in the state of na­ture and in the state de­vised by man.

Kolya (Alek­sey Sere­bryakov), an auto me­chanic, lives on a piece of land over­look­ing the spare but mag­nif­i­cent vista of this Rus­sian out­post. The lo­ca­tion is mag­nif­i­cent enough that it has at­tracted the cov­etous eyes of the town’s mayor, a loath­some, cor­rupt pig named Vadim (Ro­man Ma­di­anov). Vadim has set in mo­tion the ma­chin­ery of gov­ern­ment to crush Kolya and take away his prop­erty.

Kolya isn’t tak­ing it ly­ing down. His life may not be great, but it’s his life. He lives with his at­trac­tive young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and a surly teenage son from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage, Roma (Sergey Pokho­daev), in a di­lap­i­dated but pic­turesque house that has been in his fam­ily for gen­er­a­tions. To fight city hall, he has called out to an old army buddy, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a slick, suc­cess­ful lawyer in Moscow.

As the movie opens, Dmitri ar­rives by train, and the two old pals sit around the kitchen ta­ble go­ing over legal pa­pers and putting away im­pres­sive quan­ti­ties of vodka. Dmitri cau­tions Kolya that they prob­a­bly won’t get a fa­vor­able ver­dict in the up­com­ing hear­ing, but tells him not to worry — he has done some in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Vadim’s back­ground and come up with some in­crim­i­nat­ing dirt that will force the mayor to back off.

And that’s the way it hap­pens. At the hear­ing, a judge reads the re­jec­tion of Kolya’s ap­peal in the rapid­fire mono­tone of a pitch­man recit­ing the po­ten­tial side ef­fects of a pre­scrip­tion drug. And then Dmitri goes to see Vadim. In the mayor’s of­fice, which is dec­o­rated with a con­spic­u­ous framed photo por­trait of Vladimir Putin, the Moscow lawyer hands over a file filled with stuff ap­par­ently so vile that the mayor caves and agrees to Dmitri’s terms with­out a fight. Ap­par­ently.

Vadim’s clos­est con­fi­dante is the lo­cal Rus­sian Or­tho­dox bishop (Valeriy Gr­ishko), who de­clines to hear the specifics of what Dmitri has on the mayor (“We’re not in con­fes­sion”) but cas­ti­gates him to fight back like a man. Reli­gion by and large takes its lumps here; young Roma hangs out with his teenage bud­dies in the col­lapsed shell of a ru­ined church, sit­ting around a camp­fire and learn­ing how to get drunk.

Along with the might­i­ness of na­ture and the per­va­sive­ness of po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, drink is per­haps the most preva­lent con­stant in direc­tor An­drey Zvyag­int­sev’s bleak world. Ev­ery­one, but es­pe­cially the men, down tum­blers and bot­tles of vodka like health nuts hy­drat­ing. Sev­eral of Kolya’s close friends are lo­cal cops, and one of them, Pacha (Alek­sey Rozin), in­vites the group to go on a pic­nic to cel­e­brate his birth­day, where they will drink and shoot at tar­gets. Guns and vodka. What could pos­si­bly go wrong? The tar­gets Pacha has brought along in­clude framed pho­tos of past Rus­sian lead­ers, run­ning up as far as Gor­bachev, with the im­pli­ca­tion that there are more re­cent ones as well.

What ac­tu­ally goes wrong is a dis­as­ter more so­cial than mor­tal, but it all adds to the trou­bles that, Job­like, con­tinue to pile onto the grad­u­ally di­min­ish­ing fig­ure of Kolya. Un­like the bi­b­li­cal Job, Kolya is hardly a right­eous man, but he is crushed all the same, and there is no God to step in and set things right. “Can you pull in the leviathan with a fish­hook or tie down his tongue with a rope?” says a vil­lage priest to Kolya, as his trou­bles mount. The secular way of putting that is: You can’t fight city hall.

Zvyag­int­sev ( Elena ) and cine­matog­ra­pher Mikhail Krich­man paint gor­geous pic­tures that, but­tressed by mu­sic from Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten , em­pha­size the over­whelm­ing forces of na­ture and state lined up against the puni­ness of man. The ti­tle ref­er­ences Thomas Hobbes’ clas­sic 1651 trea­tise on gov­ern­ment, which pro­poses that the brutish­ness of na­ture can only be over­come by a pow­er­ful state (“For by art is cre­ated that great Leviathan called a Com­mon­wealth or State”), which in turn sum­mons the sym­bol­ism of the bi­b­li­cal leviathan of the Book of Job.

Zvyag­int­sev took the screen­play award at Cannes, and the film is a lead­ing Os­car con­tender in the For­eign Lan­guage Film cat­e­gory. It con­tains scenes of ex­hil­a­rat­ing and dev­as­tat­ing power, in­clud­ing a leviathan-like ap­pear­ance near the end of the de­vour­ing jaws of mod­ern ma­chin­ery. But there are flaws in the sto­ry­telling, which can be both dis­con­nected and, at nearly two and a half hours, heavy-hand­edly drawn out. Points are made, re­made, and made again. The act­ing is solid, the set­ting is sen­sa­tional, and the out­look is bleak.

In deep weeds: Alek­sey Sere­bryakov

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