The current political landscape makes for a compelling reason to see any Russian film, but filmgoers will struggle to find any that can match Leviathan‘s captivating plot, or authentic setting and characters.
Placed on the coast of the Kola Peninsula in the north west of Russia, the rough sea that almost surrounds the location isn’t lifegiving, but rather adds to its bleakness. The gigantic, native whales – from which the film, at least in part, must get its name – mostly provide washed up, skeletal remains, while the fish that the nearby town survive on are quickly gutted in a hastily built shed by the ocean.
It’s here that Kolya and his family – his wife, and son from a previous marriage – survive, until a corrupt politician decides to acquire their small hand-built house on the shoreline in order to use their land for redevelopment. The family’s fight against the suffocating corruption endemic to Russia’s government stops just short of Kafka-esque, but when Koyla and his good friend Dmitri decide to use the politician’s hidden past against him, the threats of blackmail only hasten the family’s decline.
With such an unhappy choice of subject matter, it’s surprising that there are so many occasions for genuine levity. In a town with little going for it, residents get by with a wicked sense of humour that occasionally makes you forget that you’re not actually watching a comedy. Behind all the family gatherings, as well as the more unhappy moments, there’s the constant, nauseating smell of vodka. It flows like water, and, by all accounts, the small town is drowning in it. Characters will chastise each other for the results of their heavy drinking while filling their glasses with yet more of the stuff, and entire dialogues are carried slurred and rambling after both parties have spent the even under the bottle.
Leviathan has a significant role to fill at the moment. It serves as an important reminder of the similarities between the people of Putin’s Russia to those of us in the west, but Leviathan has plenty more to give: the action and direction are flawless and the barren setting is captured superbly. With incredible talent filling every available role and a plot that only grows in intrigue, it’s difficult to find fault in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s ambitious latest feature. If you have any interest in world cinema at all, Leviathan is utterly unmissable.
Leviathan is released nationwide on 7th November 2014.
Watch the trailer for Leviathan here: