Leviathan Film Review

Leviathan Film Review
The setting of "Leviathan" is a sparsely populated fishing village in western Russia. Kolya, a self-employed car mechanic, is fighting the mayor's attempt to confiscate his land and home. Kolya enlists the help of his Moscow friend and lawyer, Dmitri. The mayor responds by having Dmitri beaten and Kolya framed for a crime he didn't commit. During a drunken encounter between the three men, the mayor bellows, "You've never had any rights and you never will."

It would be easy, then, to assume that the leviathan referenced in the film's title is the all-powerful state, callously destroying the lives of its citizens. Screenwriters Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintsev (who is also the director) tell a more complicated story. Rather than paint every character as a victim, the film holds people responsible for their actions. As Dmitri tells Lilya, Kolya's wife, after they are caught having an affair, "Nobody is guilty in all things. We all are guilty."

The crucial scene where Kolya witnesses Dmitri and Lilya together occurs off-screen. This is also true of the scene in which Lilya's fate is determined. Zvyagintsev deliberately leaves certain aspects of the story open to interpretation. As he says in the DVD commentary, he wants the viewer to be a co-author of the film. Zvyagintsev declares, "I trust the viewer's imagination. I let them create their own movie."

Zvyagintsev also values realistic settings. Kolya's house was the only set created specifically for "Leviathan". All the other scenes were shot in functioning buildings. Zvyagintsev's passion for capturing reality extended to the many scenes featuring vodka. The director asked his actors to actually drink during filming so they would not merely be imitating the gestures of drunkenness. The only actor to refuse was Roman Madyanov, who plays the mayor. His performance is all the more astonishing because of this fact.

Zvyagintsev and his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman apparently stayed sober, as well, because the film is visually intelligent and striking. The film opens with images of the natural world, sea and sky, and then gradually moves inland to the manufactured world of man. There are numerous images of decay throughout the film, rusting hulls of boats and the skeleton of a whale visible at low tide. Many of the camera shots are static, with the actors moving in and out of the frame. Editing cuts are minimal and unobtrusive, which allows the viewer to focus on the images presented.

The final images of the film mirror the opening, again depicting nature accompanied by the music of Philip Glass. The repetitious, cyclical motifs of the music could be a metaphor for the continuing struggle of the powerless against the powerful, but Zvyagintsev would never insist on a single interpretation.

"Leviathan" is rated R for language and a short sequence that contains nudity. I watched the film on DVD at my own expense. It is in Russian with English subtitles. The commentary by director Zvyagintsev and producer Alexander Rodnyansky is fascinating. For instance, one critic accused the film of having four endings. The commentary gives Zvyagintsev an opportunity to explain why he included each of those scenes. Also, many of the Russian literary and cultural references that might be missed by an American audience are clarified by the filmmakers. Review posted on 6/19/2015.

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