Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
In a Russian coastal town, Kolya is forced to fight the corrupt mayor when he is told that his house will be demolished. He recruits a lawyer friend to help, but the man's arrival brings further misfortune for Kolya and his family.
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★★★★★ review by DirkH on Letterboxd
One of the sincerest films I've ever seen, a quality earning it an immediate spot amongst my favourite films of all time.
Leviathan is a bleak condemnation of orthodox religion, the pettiness of self gain and the corruptive nature of power. It is a film that tells its story with an unrelenting and startling sincerity, something I greatly admire in any film, but done to the quality it is done here, it left me angry, melancholic, empty, moved and above all deeply impressed.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev and his team have crafted a film that is paced astonishingly well and looks breathtaking. The cold, grey cinematography and the impeccable attention to detail in creating this slice of Russian life both add to the strength of the central themes and to the consistently present undercurrent of dread in the narrative. The performances Zvyagintsev gets out of his cast are paramount to why this film packs such a punch. There isn't a fake performance there. Understated, natural and with tremendous restraint, the performances provide the soul searing humanity in this inhumane tale.
And what a tale it is. Told with unflinching courage, Leviathan criticizes the society from which it stems without mercy. The plot is very much a two parter. First we are shown the hard life in a poor, dilapidated coastal village in the north of Russia. The Vodka flows abundantly and life is monotonous. At the centre lives our protagonist with his son and his wife, desperately trying to keep hold of the house he has built with his own hands as the town's mayor wants to tear it down. As simple as this premise may sound, and the first half of the film is pretty straightforward, it lays the foundation for the devastating allegorical layer of the second half of the film.
There is a pivotal moment in the film. A catalyst that the first hour builds up to ever so subtly. Zvyagintsev keeps handing out these foreshadowing pinpricks that create discomfort and had me shifting in my seat for no apparent reason. After that pivotal moment, which is handled with refreshing restraint, it soars off to hammer home its point with grim determination.
Leviathan, the devil, evil, whatever you want to call it, it is everywhere. It has its tentacles in our nature, in our society, in our beliefs. We are Leviathan. Zvyagintsev transposed this idea over this village and the people that inhabit it. In doing so he shows us humans at their most mean spirited, selfish and vile. From the people representing administrative authority to spiritual authority, they are all insincere, manipulative and self centred individuals that will do anything to maintain their influence and power. The bleakness of this side of Russian society is a perfect backdrop to convey this harrowing message.
But there's still more to it. There is one man with sincere motives in this story. And in a very revealing conversation he has with the priest, it becomes clear that what we are watching is a retelling of the book of Job, but not as an affirmation of faith. The book of Job basically deals with the question: Why do the righteous suffer? Job, after much hardship, comes to peace with that question. Our protagonist Kolya never gets that reward. I believe that in the Old Testament it is written that God is there to control the beast Leviathan and that the righteous will feast on its flesh. I can't help but feel that in this small town God has let Leviathan loose and has it speak in His name. The way this film essentially lays bare everything wrong with narrow minded religious conviction that doesn't really deal with faith but more with rituals and appearance and the way it condemns our inherent desires to meet our own needs first, completely bowled me over.
A final word on the amazing imagery. You've all seen that film poster. That juxtaposition of death and distraught youth was an amazing moment. There is also the ever present vitality of the ocean set against the leeched out life in the village. Leviathan is out there, swimming, alive, there really is no escape. And then there's the weather. It's subtle, but it becomes increasingly worse, adding to that gut feeling that things will go belly up.
Leviathan is not an easy film and I'm glad it isn't. Films as ambitious and courageous as this shouldn't be. What I do know is that it won't leave my mind and for that rare gift I thank it.
★★★★★ review by Jonathan White on Letterboxd
TIFF 2014 film #12
Reason for pick: Director Andrey Zvyagintsev, Elena
As my friends know, I usually go completely blind into films, especially at TIFF. My lovely wife does the hard work of picking based on our ( almost universally ) shared taste. Thus, I usually don’t go in with much anticipation. Leviathan was an exception. When I found out that it was on this year’s roster I was positively giddy. We had just watched Zvyagintsev’s Elena a few weeks ago, and I was amazed and refreshed at how well executed it was stylistically, narratively, and thematically.
Preceding the screening, director Zvyagintsev is introduced and bounds out onto the stage in a manner reminiscent of Roberto Benigni. This guy is just so damn enthusiastic! By way of an introduction to the film he rips into Russian for what must have been a solid two to three minutes; His poor, hapless, translator trying to interject every thirty seconds or so to no avail. My takeaway was that this is one of the most passionate directorial personalities I’ve seen since said Roberto Benigni.
The opening scene for Leviathan is as dramatic as that from Elena, but stylistically diametrically opposed. In Elena, cinematographer Mikhail Krichman goes for long, quiet, and observational. Here, he’s bold and animated, depicting the unstoppable power of nature. Krichman is not only at ease, but masterful in either technique. In both films, the opening shot sets the story in a way that can’t be verbalized.
The first act is a mishmash of acerbic disenchantment, comradery, solidarity, and wickedly dry humor. At one point I thought we were going to be treated to a dark as coal remake of the Australian classic The Castle. Oh, and drinking. Being a proud Canadian, I have to admit that our Russian friends have the drinking thing way way more down than we do. I just didn’t know where this film was going to go. I was entranced, but befuddled.
In Elena, it was easy to spot the themes that Zvyagintsev wanted to spotlight; the simplicity of identifying them part of his guile. For the life of me, for the entire first act I thought that Zvyagintsev was gleefully poking fun at my anticipation of theme; he was just simply realizing a slice-of-life Northern Russian style. Then, when he was finished toying with me, one of his ecclesiastic characters dropped the Job quote:
” Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
Will it make an agreement with you
for you to take it as your slave for life? “
A chill went down my spine. Everything before, and then everything afterwards made sense. My heart sank and I felt nothing but despair. And then the film ended.
At the Q and A afterwards, someone asked about the bleakness of the film. Zvyagintsev acknowledged the tone, but then said that in Russia there is a saying. Hope dies last. I almost cried.
★★★★½ review by SilentDawn on Letterboxd
Relentlessly chilly, although echoing with a restrained heartbeat, Leviathan is a grandiose and heart-wrenching take on Orthodox religion and the corruption that weaves within its system and those who attend. Andrey Zvyagintsev (I'm laughing at myself trying to pronounce his name) paints an epic picture of genuine characters, incidents of fate, and masterful sequences of delicate restraint and wispy visual interactions.
Each frame is finely tuned, with Mikhail Krichman's cinematography tackling intimate portrayals of troubled family dynamics and desolate landscapes with an almost omnipresent view. The imagery here, at many moments, feels as if God is sneaking a peek through the majestic clouds.
The direction goes hand in hand with this view, favoring wide, expansive shots over closeups and narrow framing. Zvyagintsev even showcases multiple huge moments from the back seat of cars, shoving the audience into the happenings with visceral flair and graceful sorrow.
Leviathan stuns not just because of its images and its focus, but because of every performance contained within. Not one actor felt out of place or incapable to keep up with the material, and that is perhaps the film's greatest strength. With such a humane and deeply felt screenplay, exceptional performances were essential for the themes to resonate clearly and without feeling false. There's no doubt that every performer in Leviathan understood this, and it shows.
Overall, Leviathan is a shivering and grim drama that commits to a sincere yet isolated tone in order to ponder horrific truths. It is at once sad, bleak, and gloomily authentic, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't riveted and practically gasping for air throughout.
★★★★ review by sprizzle on Letterboxd
So much better than the other Leviathan movie I saw this year.
Russia is a really good looking country. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev grew up there and this movie is proof he knows. This is a winter painting of Northern Russian and a family that is coming apart. Winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes, it manages to cram a ton of captivating interaction in between the book ends of beautiful landscape photography.
The story could seen to be loosely based on Job, a character in the bible. Kolya is a father who is up against some big fish. He has lost his property and the only people in a position to change that are corrupt government officials that are buying his lot. It's clear from the beginning, without the property the family will disintegrate. The house, a serene, reflecting space, is the foundation that Kolya helped build. It's been in his family for generations but the wants of a few look to change that.
This movie is surprisingly funny. The first half of the feature almost plays like a Coen brother's film. Very funny at times but with violence always around the corner. The trick here is that it doesn't show it's hand too early. I didn't really know what I was getting into. It is a powerful film. It preaches against religion, against power, and even calls out a few notable Russian figures. Everything seems to be working against our protagonist. Instead of reaching out towards religion, he reaches out and grabs a bottle of vodka. And that of course doesn't help. But really what does? He is up against an unbeatable force. A force every bit as powerful as God. With the ability to end your life or simply string it along as it sees fit.
★★★★ review by ScreeningNotes on Letterboxd
A vodka-stained satire of government oppression and popular inaction. An attack not content to merely point its weapons at the easy enemies, but also at the hard heroes. An angry cry for change on both sides.
Languid, moody landscapes washed out in drab browns and blues. A world without the color of enjoyment. Society as a skeletal vessel, decaying after years of squandered potential.
As cynical as I get about awards season, I'm thankful that it gave theaters a reason to play this great foreign film instead of sticking with the latest releases. In general I find myself leaning more toward older films, but this one looks really beautiful on the big screen and feels like a Russian classic in the making.
"Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words? Nothing on earth is its equal. It is king over all that are proud."
Is the problem with Kolya, the reason he struggles under the rule of the Leviathan, that he's too proud? Would he be able to conquer the beast if he could humble himself enough to accept help from those who have wronged him?
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