“Leviathan” offers compelling allegory

By Alex Greenberger

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“Leviathan” is an uplifting story about what humans can do under political repression — until it isn’t. Like the Thomas Hobbes book it shares its name with, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s fourth feature film views man as being solitary, poor, nasty and brutish. Few good things happen to the characters by the end of this 141-minute epic, but it is hard to turn away from it all.

From its opening shots of choppy waves set to music from Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten,” it is clear that “Leviathan” is going to be a tale where people are stirred to action. The ocean, which, at times, appears to be smooth in the area around an idyllic Russian town, begins to churl and turn against the rocks on the shore. It’s not unlike the unhappy family at the core of the film. When Vadim (Roman Madyanov), a corrupt bureaucrat, says he will evict the family from their home, Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) takes charge. He hires his friend, Dima (Vladimir Vdovitchnekov), as a lawyer. His second wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), provides moral support, while his teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhadaev) rebels and drinks with his friends.

Matters quickly become more complicated, as they often do in Russian film and literature. Vadim takes measures against the family, because Kolya just won’t give up. Dima becomes romantically involved with Lilya. Roma grows angst-ridden because Lilya does not feel like a mother figure to him. And that’s all within the first 45 minutes.

“Leviathan” is so complex and sprawling, it is easy to forget that the film is, more or less, just an elaborate melodrama. (It feels a lot like Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” in that respect.) But oh, what a dense and political melodrama it is. Zvyagintsev, whose eye for subtle images never fails him, directs minimally — and allows for maximal effects.

There are many dramatic moments in this tale, but there are few emotional outpourings. The performances, particularly from Madyanov and Serbryakov, are fittingly underplayed, though undeniably effective. Lyadova, in particular, uses her often-teary, yet seemingly expressionless, eyes to portray sadness rather than lending her body to over-the-top outbursts. Though it would be a disservice to completely discredit the talented cast of “Leviathan,” the performers owe a lot to Zvyagintsev, who prefers an anti-climax to catharsis and tends toward subtlety. His screenplay, co-written with Oleg Negin, fittingly spares his audience all the theatrical excess that normally comes with a story such as this one.

More than anything else, “Leviathan” is an allegory, though, like the bleak cinematography, it’s not at all ham-fisted. Vadim is a stand-in for any Russian leader — there’s a sequence were Kolya, Dima and their friends shoot framed portraits of Stalin and his ilk — but it’s fairly obvious that he is meant to be Putin.

Yet even if the film feels remarkably contemporary, its issues more pressing now than they would have been a decade or two ago, “Leviathan” is timeless. Kolya’s tale is one that is no doubt one that people have been facing since the beginning of time — an age-old battle between authority and its underlings for property. And it is likely that “Leviathan” will stand the test of time, too, as a remarkably effective story with even greater political implications, or as one of 2014’s better films.

Alex Greenberger is arts editor. Email him at agreenberger@nyunews.com.

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