Saturday, 18 October 2014

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL II: LEVIATHAN

Leviathan is a Russian film that at times feels like a 19th century Russian novel; it's also a tightly-focused story about political corruption that at times feels almost epic. I saw it just after The Drop in this year's London Film Festival, and there are some similarities between the two: both are stories of people struggling with lives of quiet repetition, badly-paid work and a lack of control in the face of more powerful forces. They both also have a sense of failed religion about them, but there is a difference, because in Leviathan the church's presence is far more overt and the corruption is engrained throughout society.

Kolya is a handyman and mechanic who's built his own house overlooking his hometown on the northern Kola peninsula, near Murmansk. But the town mayor, Vadim, wants the property for a redevelopment project, and Kolya's old army buddy Dimitri (Dima), who's now a lawyer in Moscow, has shown up to help him, bearing a file of information about Vadim's shady dealings. Meanwhile, Kolya's first wife died, and his son Roma doesn't like his stepmother, Lilya.

The story plays out in the contrast between the lives of the characters who would have been called peasants in a 19 th century Russian novel, and the machinations of the bureaucracy which Vadim can use, with a little old-fashioned physical force thrown in. For a moment it seems as if Dima's approach, trying to get justice through the system combined with a little blackmail within the shadowy system might work. But then there is factor of human emotions, and of drink.

Kolya's life is an erratic dance between pain and pleasure. He and his friends, a couple of traffic cops, drink, smoke, drink, eat pickles, drink, shoot, and drink to excess. Alexey Serebryakov conveys the necessary facade of bluster with an endearing sensitivity; I could swear I was watching Victor the Ape, one of my drivers at the Moscow Olympics, as we got drunk on vodka and ate sour berries in 1980. As his nemesis, Vadim, Roman Madyanov is perfect, a mix of more effective bluster, feral cunning, and short-tempered violence which is contrasted with his public piety with the Orthodox bishop who is his confessor.

Vladimir Vdovitchenkov as Dimitri is a sort of Russian Belmondo, a figure of some glamour, which helps explain the tension which boils over between him and Lilya. As Lilya, Elena Lyadova steals almost every scene she is in, even as she seems to disappear into the background. And just as in classic Russian novels, it is a small personal event that triggers the resolution of the bigger tale.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev keeps a firm hand on this, and at times his portrayal of ordinary Russians fighting the system and taking their small pleasures it allows is both funny and touching. And it's tragic. The landscape of Kola, icy water, bare rocky hills, seems almost a character itself; one wonders what could be built on the land Vadim covets. And the landscape is littered with loss; the skeletons of boats and a beached whale speak of desolation, and the latter is referenced when a priest talks about the story of Job.

Kolya is a Job figure, but unlike Vadim he has no faith, no church, on which to fall back. The original story may have been inspired by a fight against eminent domain in Colorado, but it's a different, very Russian fight here, just as there is none of the organised violence that marks Heinrich Von Kliest's Michael Kohlhaas, another scource for this screenplay, and itself based on a true 16th century story. Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin won the best screenplay award at Cannes this year (see photo, from left: Madyanov, Vdovitchenkov, Lyadova, Zvyagintsev), and Leviathan will be the official Russian entry at the Academy Awards.

At times the religious underpinnings at first seem a bit heavy handed, wearing the hypocritical moralising on its sleeve, but there is a twist at the end that brings the sense of it home powerfully. There's also an ambiguity, lef unsolved, about the death at the centre of the film's resolution. I believe the answer is hinted at and were I correct it would make tremendous tragic irony, but either way the point seems to be the inevitability of the film's denoument. The scenes of the church, and the scenes of the drunken friends having fun shooting their rifles at the portraits of former Russian leaders now discarded by the offices of the state, reinforce that point. It's a carefully layered story, a film that works brilliantly as those classic novels do, but satisfies on its own terms as well.

NOTE: This review will also appear, in a slightly different form, at crimetime.co.uk


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