Movie a Day Blog was not surprised to read news reports that the Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film from Russia would probably not be widely shown in that country, if at all.
LEVIATHAN (2014, Theatrical) is a strong if depressing indictment of the corruption, privilege and abuse of power that still rule small fiefdoms across that vast country.
In this contemporary tale set in a small northern Russian coastal town, stark in its beauty and desolation, Kolya, a mechanic and laborer, is about to lose the property that has been in his family for generations to a rapacious and utterly corrupt mayor.
I recently watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Russian medieval masterpiece, ANDREI RUBLEV (1966), and there is an unbroken Russian response from the 1400s depicted in that black and white film, and the muted color despair of LEVIATHAN: drink more vodka.
The amount of vodka consumed by Nikolai and every other participant in the film, including his do-gooder lawyer friend who thinks justice will win out, is prodigious, and not limited to the victims. Neither the mayor nor most of the other male characters ever seem sober, either; only Dmitriy, the lawyer, even attempts to maintain sobriety and it turns out being sober doesn’t help much. The pain is still there.
The alcoholism depicted as part and parcel of contemporary Russian life is one of the chief elements its Russian critics cite in their attacks; they claim it is exaggerated and stereotypical.
But my two visits to Russia in the past decade, one to Moscow and another to St. Petersburg, gave me a small glimpse into Russian drinking habits, and LEVIATHAN is right on the ruble in its depiction of how most Russians cope with their endemic depression.
LEVIATHAN is far more than drunken bathos. The main reason Vladimir Putin’s government doesn’t want films like this shown is that it all too accurately depicts a Russia that simply substituted Communist bureaucracy with a blatantly corrupt private equivalent, determined to enrich itself at the cost of the people it supposedly serves.
The director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the powerful domestic drama ELENA (2011), is a brave artist indeed, since he is willing to show the human shortcomings of each of his characters, from Kolya’s noble friend who proves not so noble in the end, and Kolya’s wife, who is not as long-suffering as we might imagine.
All the acting is first-rate, and Zvyagintsev never lets up on the intensity, drawing us into Kolya’s downward spiral as surely as the venal mayor grasps ever harder at his property.
LEVIATHAN is one of the most powerful films I saw this year, and it would have made my top ten list had I seen it earlier. They may not be able to watch it in Russia, but we can certainly view it here and give Zvyagintsev, his cast and crew the satisfaction that the grim situation they document is not only real, but impactful.