Leviathan

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It takes a brave and confident filmmaker to begin with so little information in frame. Leviathan begins with breathless long shot of a seaside village at dawn, a single boat speeding along the breakwater. In the midground a figure emerges from a house with lights on, but heads back in to turn them off before leaving. It’s a minor detail but intriguing as we strain for clues with the growing sense that something momentous is about to happen.

The concept ‘leviathan’, or monster of the deep, a reference to giant serpents and whales, has been a bit of favourite with heavy metal bands. Some powerful scenes here capture the presence of the great whales that swim offshore, but in this new film from Andrey Zvyagintsev, who brought us stunning contemporary visions of his native Russia in Elena and The Return, it also alludes to the book by 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Is it not, he asks, the role of government to protect the interests of the common man?

The man in long shot is Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a car mechanic whom everyone is after for his services. For the moment, though, he has other fish to fry. This morning he is picking up an old army buddy of his, a Moscow-based lawyer, from the station. Their drive back into town passes the hulks of abandoned fishing boats and derelict buildings and other signs that the world has moved on. A small fishing industry seems to be the only thing that is keeping the village going.

No wonder Kolya and his friends like to go out on boozy shooting picnics, emptying the bottles they stand in a row as quickly as they shatter them. No problem when they run out of targets. There’s a bunch of framed portraits of former Russian leaders in the car boot that will serve as substitutes. That portrait of a young Vlad Putin glimpsed on the wall of the mayor’s chambers can wait. It needs time to ripen.

Kolya’s lawyer friend Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), so polished and professional, seems everything that he isn’t. He has come to try to help Kolya keep the family home, a property with commanding views of the sound. The town mayor (Roman Madyanov), a corrupt official if ever there was one, has grand designs for the property and he will stop at nothing to ensure he gets it. Unfortunately for Kolya, others have design on his lovely wife too.

In this backwater where tempers flare and vodka and firearms are within easy reach, filmmaker Zvyagintsev can still occasionally offer us the funny side as he presents a tragedy of the Russian everyman. His ambitiously scaled panorama of life in his home country is as enormously impressive as it is deeply human.

In a capsule: A panorama of ordinary life in a remote fishing village in contemporary Russia, from a master filmmaker. Grand, slow cinema, deeply humanist.

4.5 stars