There is a stereotype among Americans that Russian culture is a bastion of misery, religious anguish, and darkness. The fact that authors like Fyodor Dostoevsky and the comparatively lighter - but no less ambitious - Leo Tolstoy have been selected as their national representatives doesn't help this perception. With this baggage in mind, it's easy to go into a film like Leviathan and assume that it is going to be heavy, dour, and joyless. And while it may certainly be those things, it is also funny and wry, almost to an equal extent. Co-writer and director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who won best screenplay at Cannes, strikes an impressive balance between these polar opposite tones that only occasionally feels unsteady, a feat that is all the more astounding given the film's meaty 140 minute runtime. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as a slew of others; they're pedigrees that can steer away audiences who are wary of pretentious movies that attract such awards. But Leviathan manages to work as both a compelling story and a cinematic treasure trove. Don't let the subtitles scare you.
Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is an auto mechanic whose generations-old, seaside home has been threatened by the corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who wants to knock it down and replace it with something that likely would serve his own purposes and no one else's. Living with Kolya in the remote fishing village are his young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his teenaged son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). Kolya's one potential save against Vadim is his army friend, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a hotshot city lawyer who has come in from Moscow. Dima has dirt on Vadim that could be a bargaining chip against the mayor's bogus brand of eminent domain, and could enable Kolya to receive far more than the pittance that has been offered him for his land.
Suffice it to say that, in addition to this central plot, there's a whole lot else going on in this film, something you could intuit simply by looking into the origin of the title. The poster features a sullen-looking Roma crouched on a rock next the enormous skeleton of a whale, an animal that likely provided the inspiration for the Biblical Leviathan that traps Job. This provides a hint that Kolya might be a stand-in for the man whom God forced to accept the powerlessness of humanity, but the film shows that everyone is ultimately incapable of swaying their own destiny. Lilya, for example, is frustrated by her husband's intransigence and violent alcoholism, and delves into an extramarital affair in order to find some sort of happiness. Roma, whose birth mother died long ago, isolates himself from his family by drinking and smoking in none other than a ruined church. Vadim, selfish brute that he is, still requires the blessing (so to speak) of his priest in order to perpetuate his crimes.
It's in this area that Zvyagintsev tips his hand, and the film threatens to become a obvious. Vadim's priest is perpetually decked out in expensive garments and jewelry, even during an informal visit at the mayor's office. Despite his willingness to turn a blind eye towards Vadim's horrific treatment of his constituents, the priest is nevertheless self-righteous and ever eager to proselytize about the omnipotence of God and how no man has influence over his fate. I won't spoil anything, but this relationship pans out in a shocking and unsettling manner in the ending, something that feels like it should have been telegraphed the whole time, yet somehow sneaks up on you. Zvyagintsev is skilled enough not to make the audience feel assaulted by its critique of religion, but it is inescapable throughout the film.
Also ubiquitous is vodka. Kolya is perhaps the most brazenly addicted of the cast, yet even his close friends and wife partake of vodka as if it is merely the water it resembles. Its presence is rarely questioned or commented upon: aggressive drinking in front of children - and before the characters have to drive - is simply taken as a matter of course. The characters' behavior under the influence is portrayed as clearly problematic by Zvyagintsev, and so alcoholism becomes a secondary motif of the checkered state of Russian society.
Leviathan succeeds both as massive allegory and humanistic story, and this is chiefly due to the performances by Serebryakov, Vdovichenkov, and Lyadova, whose unfamiliarity to American audiences only enhances their complete embodiment of their characters. Serebryakov imbues every action he takes with aggression and recklessness; even the way he brakes in his car and parks it is severe and sudden. Vdovichenkov cuts a fine figure as the moneyed, sophisticated lawyer, yet we believe his deep-seated, borderline homoerotic relationship with Kolya as they bond over bottles of vodka and old times. Lyadova provides a stillness and quietness to the film that is the yin to Serebryakov's yang. Although she is ultimately a tragic figure, Lyadova has a brief moment of physical comedy during the male bonding scene in which she messily and sardonically eats a tomato as the men cling to one another.
Leviathan is also a gorgeous film to look at. The setting of northwestern Russia provides moments of serene, devastating beauty, particularly in the still shots that bookend the film. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman frames shots of cliffs in such a way that they appear abstract, similarly to the landscape scenes in Mr. Turner. The stark, gray color scheme grants the film a perpetual chilliness that reflects the bleak circumstances of the characters. And Philip Glass's terrific, if perfunctorily present, score underlines the film in key moments. In all manner of its construction, Leviathan is expertly made. Unsubtle themes notwithstanding, I am certainly intrigued by the rest of Zvyagintsev's filmography.