Cannes 2014 review: Leviathan - a new Russian masterpiece
The Guardian May 23, 2014
Andrei Zvyagintsev's latest is a very strong contender for the Palme d'Or – a mix of Hobbes, Chekhov and the Bible, and full of extraordinary images and magnificent symmetry
Andrei Zvyagintsev's Leviathan is a sober and compelling tragic drama of corruption and intimidation in contemporary Russia, set in a desolate widescreen panorama. This is a movie which seems to be influenced by the Old Testament and Elia Kazan; it starts off looking like a reasonably scaled drama about a little guy taking on big government. Then it escalates to a new plane in which man is taking on the biggest, most cruel and implacable government of all, and the final sequence of devastation must surely be influenced by the final moments of Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice.
Leviathan is acted and directed with unflinching ambition, moving with deliberative slowness and periodically accelerating at moments of high drama and suspense. It isn't afraid of massive symbolic moments and operatic gestures; I was fractionally sceptical about these at the time, but they live and throb in my head hours after the final credit crawl. The film incidentally features a horribly watchable performance from Roman Madyanov as a crooked mayor who resembles a hideous reincarnation of Broderick Crawford in the 1949 municipal graft classic All the King's Men – with a hint of Boris Yeltsin. I hadn't heard of this 51-year-old Russian performer before now. His excellent performance makes me think it's a pity Cannes doesn't have a best supporting actor prize.
The film's hero is Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov), a car mechanic with a beautiful second wife Lilya (Elena Liadova), and a teenage son Roma (Sergei Pokhodaev) from his first marriage. It is his fortune or misfortune to have a modest family-built property on prime real estate: a beautiful spot on the waterfront in the lapland wilderness of north-western Russia. Now a crooked mayor Vadim (Madyanov) wants this land to build his own gruesome luxury dacha, and slaps the Russian equivalent of a Compulsory Purchase Order on Kolia: he gets this precious land for a derisory sum. But Kolia calls on the help of his old army buddy Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) who is now a slick lawyer in Moscow and he has arrived in this remote region with a file full of incriminating evidence on Vadim which he promises his old comrade will induce Vadim to back off. But it soon becomes clear that getting the old homestead back isn't precisely what Dimitri has in mind. And his motives for helping aren't what they first appear.
Leviathan shows a world governed by drunken, depressed, aggressive men: there is a brilliant scene in which Kolia and Vadim square up late at night, both wrecked on vodka. Later, Kolia and his buddies will go on a hunting trip: they have gallons of vodka, rifles and one even has his old army issue Kalashnikov — and for targets they use portraits of Russian leaders from Brezhnev to Gorbachev. Yeltsin, "the boozy conductor" is indulgently not included and the guy bringing the portraits says he has kept back the more modern portraits — until they get "some historical perspective". (In fact, the current President's picture is hanging coyly in Vadim's handsomely appointed office.) Endlessly, officials talk about the Russian criminal code, giving chapter and verse from the rule book. But it is all a cynical nonsense. What counts is money and power. At the film's courtroom scenes at the beginning and end, the court President babbles through the charges and verdicts robotically. It is gibberish.
Kolia finds himself at the centre of a perfect storm of poisoned destiny. He is a poor man who through a quirk of fate has what others want: a beautiful wife, a handsome property. He is at the focal point of contemporary Russia's most dangerous forces: smart lawyers, gangster-rich politicians, arrogant priests — Vadim is a close friend of an icily dogmatic Orthodox churchman who is impatient and contemptuous of this politician uneasy private confidences. Dimitri, for his part, says that as a lawyer he is only interested in facts. Poor Kolia is at the mercy of events that will happen behind his back: key scenes and moments occur agonisingly off-screen, although it isn't hard to guess what has happened.
The director has said that the title refers partly to Hobbes's Leviathan, the classic work about the implications of relinquishing some of your natural liberty to a central sovereign so that society may be peaceful and orderly. Kolia, that tough frontiersman, feels that he has relinquished quite enough to the state, with its dodgy cops and shady politicians. But Leviathan also means the whale: many literally get stranded in this waterway, and one is seen brooding in the water. A Dostoyevskian-looking priest speaks to Kolia about enduring his trials like Job, submitting to God's will, as mighty as the great beast of the sea: "Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook?" Yet Kolia has become not Job, but the beached whale, with all the burdensome size but none of the power: massive, inert, waiting only for death to put his trial to an end.
Leviathan is a forbidding and intimidating piece of work, a return to his earlier themes, and away from the more domestic drama of his previous, awarding movie Elena but it has a magnificent ambition and scope. So much cinema is content with minor themes and manageable topics — small fry. Leviathan is hunting bigger game. It is a movie with real grandeur.