A Film Review
Violence, love, corruption, heroic tales and tragic fates, so many subjects exploited to depletion by the great cinematographic industry of modern times. Today, directors of modern dramas destined to be projected on the big screen, live for the most original screenplay, the most unhinged realisation, the most upsetting result or the deepest message, so much that our screens are now seldom without bankable star-riddled, anglo-saxon centred, glamorous but empty sob- stories destined to re-examine the place of you or me in modern society.
Caught in this head-spinning profligacy operated by the great producing houses, one might, upon arriving at saturation-point, wish for a breath of fresh air and seek to spend a worthy couple of hours watching a mind-opening, enriching piece of cinema, an insight into a world that one might not even know exists, or a refresher on a region that is so often forgotten by the dictatorial principles of pop culture.
Enter Leviathan, directed in 2014 by Andrey Zvyagintsev, and starring Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, and Vladimir Vdovichenkov. Russian cinema, it will have been difficult to miss. Despite the frequency with which she appears in the news, the potency of her reach in international relations, or the relevancy of her participation in world conflicts, rarely is Mother Russia depicted on our screens, with the notable exceptions of cold war history films, or subjective politico-mafioso documentaries on Putin and his cronies.
But Leviathan is another story altogether, one that comes straight from the source. Zvyagintsev’s picture brings a depiction of mundane, industrial Russia which, to the non-Slavic layman, has something of an authentic feel, allowing us to peek through the keyhole and discover life in today’s Russia – in all its complexity and with all the challenges that come to bear.
A coastal town in Northern Russia. A fisherman, Kolya, fights against a corrupt local town official, a mayor fixing to expropriate him from his house and land to construct a new property. The protagonists war with the weapons at their disposals – the former with an old army pal turned Muscovite lawyer, and his second wife, the latter with the full force of the local Courts, the muscle of Russian thugs and the sermons of the Orthodox Church. As the plot patiently unfolds, leading Kolya from bad to worse, the characters reveal their complexity and many facets – a loving but unrestrained son, a power-wielding Orthodox pope, a drunken local police chief, a thick but friendly industrial plant worker, flocks of brutalising ruffians.
An opening on stills of broken, rotting, wooden vessels half submerged in water. Every shot is drawn out, patient, crystalline, the exact reverse of Bresson’s decisive moment. Every scene is a scene that was present a decade ago, and will still be present a decade from now – shots that can do nothing but evoke a static, unchanging image of Russia and its vast territory, a life scale model of the five year plans, the Soviet economy and its industrial wreckage. Despite the pain represented on screen, the mind can do nothing but appreciate such a slowness of tempo, being used to action-packed scenes unwrapping at the speed of light. Quand tout va trop vite, penser à ralentir! In Leviathan, the photography reveals a vast, cold, wind-stricken bay where whales occasionally venture, a rundown town where its inhabitants struggle to scrap a living off the derelict economy. Close on stills of the same broken, rotting, wooden vessels, and the immutable ebb and flow of the ocean pounding on rocks.
In all its measured and deliberate rhythm, the plot packs a nail-biting suspense, as we are drawn into the fate of Kolya and find ourselves rooting for David in his fight against Goliath, so much so that the more dire the situation becomes, and the better we start to apprehend its inexorable end, the more anxious we are. This stunningly beautiful but dishearteningly sad narrative offers to its viewer a commentary on the unforgiving slaughterhouse that a society can become when power and scheme collide with booze and high stakes – it is not for nothing that the title itself evokes Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, a monumentally well-known and seminal text on the role, inter alia, of the State in modern societies. Finally, make what you will of the beached whale skeleton half submerged in sand, that appears at times, perhaps the symbol of a derelict and bereft world leading itself to its own demise?
As with many manifestations of the seventh art, Leviathan has elicited a huge reaction, and not an entirely positive one at that. The movie’s representation of Russians in their daily lives as brutal and agressive, men and women alike, permanently drunk on absurd quantities of vodka, corrupt on all levels and having as sources of enjoyment violent activities have caused some to take issue as to their characterisation in Zvyagintsev’s movie. This has in turn allegedly, and one must here appreciate the sense of irony, led the Russian Ministry of Culture to issue some guidelines as to movies produced on Russian culture and with governmental funds, as to the characterisation of Russians on-screen.
Leviathan has reaped a significant number of awards across the board, including Best Screenplay at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Best Foreign Language Film at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards, and Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards. Yet, and as much as the critics hail it un obra maestra, Leviathan first and foremost packs a simple but powerful message – a fresco of the weak against the strong, of the frail against the powerful, of the downtrodden against the mighty.
À aller voir, Antoine Faure