Rebecca Mae Lam reviews the beautiful and satirical Leviathan

Slowly the scenes of the Barents Sea within the film envelop us and draw us close, like the deep sigh of a wave to settle and witness this earthly tale of modern Russia. The trailer for Andrey Zvyaginstev’s latest film suggests a conflict between two unions: the state versus the family. However, the film breaks again and again against these forces and reveals the smeared and fragmented reality beneath the veneer.

Skeletons of fishing boats and a whale greet us, all of which have decayed past the point of redemption. The small town in which the tale unfolds is cold, sparse, and unyielding, but in the centre of this wasteland we meet Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov), a patriarchal figure as rooted to the land as the home he lives in. We quickly acknowledge that Kolia and his family are being faced with the threat of eviction from their sea-gazing idyll by the local authorities. These authorities are ventriloquized by a mayor so steeped in blood that Kolia’s old army comrade, and now solicitor, asks him how he sleeps at night.

In Leviathan, we are presented with distinct polarities. The state is personified by the vodka inflated glutton, Vadim the mayor (Roman Madyanov), a veritable bully and immovable figurehead of Russia’s corruption. Putin hangs Christ-like above his desk and he stands draped in rich fur shortly before boasting at his enemy’s demise. We see a seemingly united front between Kolia, his family, and his friends; an element which enriches our viewing as we edge closer to the warm and sometimes comical presentation of their lives.

Leviathan is a sphinx of a film, it riddles the senses, and we feel tricked by our expectations

Through director Andrey Zvyaginstev’s realist portrayal we begin to see how fractured these unities are, and quickly the civil struggle becomes paired with a personal and family struggle. The film ebbs and surges on as we become increasingly captivated within this wild realm where both people and land are weathered by natural and governmental forces. Direction and score, masterfully composed by Philip Glass, move together, steadily creating an aesthetic symphony that often broaches on the epic. There is a deft subtlety to the actors’ performances that only strengthens this experience.

A delectable distraction from fast approaching deadlines, one that packs enough acclaim to justify a night away from the books. Leviathan is a sphinx of a film, it riddles the senses, and we feel tricked by our expectations. The trailer and title directly allude to the sacrifices imposed on civilian life by the might of a bureaucratic state, however, what we are actually subjected to is much more tangible, much less didactic.

Audiences roar as Kolia and the mayor square up to each other – both blind with vodka – resembling two drunken teenagers in a petty squabble. The film has spurts of laughter, such as when Kolia’s friends and family go shooting and portraits of bygone presidents are offered as targets. When asked if there are any more modern substitutes, the reply is that there has not been enough “historical perspective” yet, a remark that slices through the narrative and offers a memorable piece of satire.

Leviathan is a tempestuous meander through the human and moral spectrum. It is not minimal, it gives much in exchange for your empathy and conscience. This film is a masterpiece upon which we can gaze, it is a privileged invitation to immerse ourselves in Zvyaginstev’s self-aware depiction of modern Russia, where parody and satire dance with cinematic beauty.

Featured image credit: tocadocinefilo.com

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