"Leviathan" the fourth feature from Russian visionary Andrei Zvyagintsev, is a complete masterpiece and the true champion of world cinema released in 2014, Nuri Blige Ceylan's Turkish masterpiece "Winter Sleep" comes very close. It's a riveting and psychological dramatic thriller, a political satire, and a deeply disturbing family drama. With truly stunning landscape cinematography, and a script that echoes the complexity of great literature, the film is one of the most visually luminous films of the year that is in the spirit of Ingmar Bergman, and Andrei Tarkovsky. A film that is contemplative in tone, evocative of modern Russia, and around a film of great artistry and craftsmanship . This is a work of genius that has a lot of layers and profound things to say about Putin's Russia, how corruption continues
Andrei Zvyagintsev is indeed one of the greatest international directors working today. Sadly his appeal has been limited in the USA, like most foreign films. His career has been supported mainly by the film festival circuit, and of course his films have gained limited art-house distributor which seems to be getting smaller and smaller in the U.S. due to the era of cable tv and Internet streaming. His films include the brilliant 2012 noir "Elena" (which made my top 10 that year), "The Banishment" that never received U.S. Distribution, and his 2004 critic darling "The Return", which are all impeccably made films, but they're also too oblique, minimal, and too ambiguous to satisfy American audiences.
His new film "Leviathan" will perhaps be his most accepting for American art-house audiences than his previous works, and Zvyaginstev should gain a larger following after "Leviathan", especially after winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as earning an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film that sadly lost out to the less deserving, but equally excellent Polish drama "Ida". The film is an original script written by Zvyaginstev, but also loosely based on Book of Job, which makes it very tragic and unsettling. If people look pass the shattering story, they will discover something quite rewarding.
The title refers to the biblical sea monster from the story of Book of Job from Old Testament. The films setting which is in a beach town on the northern coast of Russia, way north of Russia, we see the dead whale washed up on the stony beach that is now become a landmark becomes a rich motif in the film's allegory, which is a brilliant commentary on Russia, and how the country can't escape its tyrannical history that dates back to the Soviet Union .
The film explores the abuse of power, as a local bureaucratic mayor named Vamil (Roman Madyanov) plays out like a sea monster as we see ravishing landscapes of stones, and waves crushing along the Sea, who justifies his abuse of power through his Russian Orthodox priest who tells him "All power comes from God".
Vlamir is after the land that is owned by a local mechanic Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a drunken hot head. The casting of Serebryakov is first-rate here as he resembles Max von Sydow from Ingmar Bergman's films. What stands behind Kolya is the politics that still echo the politics of the old-Soviet Union of conquering individual property, and abusing politics.
A portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs over the wall of Vlamir's office speaks satirical volumes. While Vlamir is faced with this abuse of power, he has to try to hold his family together with his beautiful younger wife Lila (Elena Lyadova) and his troubled teenage song Roma (Sergey Pokodaev) that holds a lot of resentment towards Lila because she is trying to fill in the shoes of his diseased mother.
Kolya finds hope in taking on the corruption against the local bureaucrats after his onetime friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a successful attorney based in Moscow and he still believes that Russia is a free society of private property rights, the rule of law, and freedom despite a large amount of evidence that undermines these virtues. It raises questions how Russia haven't escaped the tyranny and control after the Soviet Collapse nearly 20 years ago.
Dmitri ends up bringing unexpected turmoil that undermines any momentum and synergy they share to take on the cities corruption. To reveal what happens would be a major plot spoiler that I will not confess. The reveal brings a lot of layers and depth to the story, and Zvyaginstev and co-writer Oleg Negin allow the great ensemble cast to have a great amount of on screen moments, each of these flawed and equally fascinating characters bring a lot to the center of the story.
In one of the best scenes in the film, the story takes place in a damp and mild Arctic summer done with ravishing detail by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman during a drunken picnic where their targets are previous Soviet dictators. Zvyaginstev accomplishes a lot of of great moments here including the root of power, adultery, a mysterious disappearance that echoes the mystery of Alfred Hitchcock.
Zvyaginstev is quite uncompromising in his criticisms of modern Russia,
The "leviathan" of the title is a sea serpent that now apparently represents the government, but I'll have to leave it to Biblical scholars to find even more deeper moments. The movie has some hilarious moments that are deadpan, and its a very smart, dense, and complex film that's the best film of 2014.
Moviegoers who like accessibility and predictability should stay clear, those in awe with the art of cinema will be gratified the brilliant artistry and skill in this film. Screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Pix, and nominated in the Oscar category for best foreign language film, "Leviathan" is art-house filmmaking at its best. A film that echoes the same emotions you can get as you watch a great Ingmar Bergman, or Andrei Tarkovsky film.
Rating **** out of ****
Now showing at the Main Art Theater in Royal Oak