One of the many things that director Andrey Zvyaginstev nails in his latest work, Leviathan, is scale. The characters’ problems may be life altering, but they themselves seem small in comparison to the world around them. They are eclipsed by a landscape where the fossilized bones of a whale seem mammoth compared to the young boy who is curled weeping before it. The majesty of a newly built Orthodox Church ominously overlooks the small seaside town as the luxurious vehicles, which seem like toy cars when viewed from a distance, drive away like lost souls.
In Zvyagintsev’s extraordinary tale of one’s family’s fight against corruption, the only one who truly knows the truth is God. The story revolves around Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) who is fighting to keep the house that he resides in with his teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhadaev) and second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova). Despite having deep roots and building his home by himself, Kolya is being forced off his land by the local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov). A drunkard who frequently abuses his power – similarities to a current mayor in Toronto are purely coincidental – Vadim wants the land for his own sinister development plans.
Unwilling to give up his home without a fight, Kolya calls upon his lawyer friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) to come in from Moscow to lend a hand. What Dima ends up uncovering about Vadim not only backs the mayor into an uncomfortable corner, but triggers a series of events that will have a lasting impact on everyone.
Taking a meditative approach, and featuring stunning cinematography, Leviathan is a powerful examination of the unholy bond between church and state within contemporary Russian society. The characters, all except for Dima who only believes in fact, constantly make reference to God’s ability to work things out. Even the mayor makes a point of telling his misbehaving son that God essentially sees all. However, for all the mention of a higher power, Vadim does little to act in accordance with the teachings of the scriptures.
It is the contradictory nature of the central characters that makes Leviathan such as fascinating tale. Their fears, desires, mistakes and sorrows are as intoxicating as the vodka Kolya drinks to drown his sorrows. Zvyanginstev’s epic tale weaves through three distinct turns, each one more intriguing than the next. In the hands of a lesser talent, the film would have felt disjointed and plodding. However, Zvyanginstev avoids these trappings by bringing all of his themes together in an exceptional way. He uses nature to not only illustrate the passing of time, but also to indicate major events that are about to occur.
Shots of crashing waves, dilapidated boats, and a lone red barrel smashing into the cliffside rocks are brilliantly juxtaposed with scenes of emotional and physical anguish. This all serves to make Leviathan a compelling David versus Goliath story, one where both the righteous and the sinister must combat within an equally murky landscape. Leviathan is master filmmaking at its best; both its visual flare and complex storytelling are simply exquisite. Confident and skilled in its execution, Zvyagintsev has crafted a film that ranks amongst the year’s best.