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Leviathan PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
23 11 2014

ImageDirected by Andrey Zvagintsev

High expectations are not altogether a good thing when approaching a film. Zvagintsev's last film, Elena, was a masterpiece, showing the strong and perverse ties of relationship against a setting of modern urban Russia in all its inequalities. I had great hopes of this one, that it could also achieve the seamless melding of the personal, the political and the universal. But came away somehow disappointed. Set in a small-town community on the remote northern coast of Russia, it's the story of the powerlessness of one man against the state, where all Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov), a car mechanic, wants, is to keep on living his ordinary life.

He lives with his teenage son and second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova ) in a ramshackle house he's built perched above a beach where the skeletons of whales and wrecked, decaying fishing boats are scattered, a sorrowful, menacing presence. Now they're faced with a compulsory purchase order by the brutish local mayor (Roman Madyanov) to make way for what he claims will be a community development. You don't have to spend long in his overbearing company to suspect there's something big in it for him. Kola's old army pal Dmitryi (in Russian cinema, army comradeship , forged in adversity, is often the basis for friendship), now a high-flying lawyer from Moscow, has come up to help him fight it. And he's confident he has enough dodgy information about the mayor's dealings for them to lean on him and produce something in Kolya's favour.

Dmitryi, with his big-city confidence, sees no problem in getting the better of the Mayor, but things are different in the country. Here vodka and guns are the leisure items of choice, tempers, particularly Kolya's hair-trigger one, are on the simmer, and friends are not to be trusted. It's evident the mayor has not only his officials but the local church grandees in his pocket. Court findings are something to be gabbled through without meaning or interest, a foregone conclusion, a process repeated to more chilling effect later in the film, and it's only through a little personal intervention by Dmitryi that a good outcome seems possible. Things also fall apart on the domestic level - clearly exacerbated by the climate of corruption that even friendships are riddled with. The monstrous mayor, as representative of the state, is untouchable, all-powerful, an indestructible Leviathan amongst the wrecked past of the fishing industry that lies around them and the tedious trapped lives of the locals at the fish factory.

It's the house that remains the central, powerful image, from the first moment we see it being lit up from a distance, to the last images of its demolition, impressively seen from inside as photos and family objects are randomly broken up and swept away.

It's a tragic, ironic story, but sour comedy - as when old pictures of past presidents are brought out for shooting practice at a chilly beach barbecue - and great beauty in the bleak setting do not ever quite raise this from a good film to a great one. Is it because it's too long? Several scenes dragged. Does it depend too much on the symbolic power of the landscape rather than making us really engage with the characters, are they are too much symbols, too little real living people? The choleric Kolya and the beautiful Lilya are too opaque to read and thereby truly feel empathy for.

Nevertheless this is certainly a brave film, and its high esteem outside Russia gives it a power that the regime it attacks cannot ignore. Incredibly, considering its frosty reception (the drunkenness and the corruption, apparently, are not a true portrayal of Russian society: I think that he does not know the real Russia,' says Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky) it's probably set to be their foreign film Oscar nomination. Its general release in Russia next year will be... interesting.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, November 12 2014

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