While the 2015 awards season is technically over, it often lingers on in the form of foreign films that were nominated, but don’t get released in my area until after the Oscars are long over.
Such is the case with Andrey Zvyagintsev’s bleak Russian tragedy LEVIATHAN opening today at the Raleigh Grande, which lost the Best Foreign Picture Academy Award to Pawel Pawlikowski’s striking Polish drama IDA.
Set in the coastal town of Pribrezhnv, whose beaches are strewn with the bones of whale carcasses (Leviathan means “whale” in Modern Hebrew), while old rotting whaling ships clutter the sea, seemingly always under a dreary, overcast sky.
The grizzled Alexei Serebriakov plays Kolya, a stubborn, thick-headed auto mechanic who is caught up in a land dispute with the local government headed by the boorish, corrupt Mayor Vadim Sergeyich (Roman Madyanov).
Kolya, his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) are ordered to vacate the seaside property that's been in Koyla’s family for generations so he calls on the help of an ex-army friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vvitchenkov) who’s become a smooth, successful lawyer in Moscow.
Dimitri has compiled an incriminating file on the Mayor which he hopes will make him call off the eviction, but things get messy when Kolya is jailed for blowing up at the authorities and while he’s in the slammer, Dimitri sleeps with his wife.
The situation goes from horribly bad to wretchedly worse when Lilya commits suicide by jumping off a cliff into the ocean, and the police finger Koyla for her murder.
The story was inspired by the true story of Marvin Heemeyer, a Colorado man who made the news for fighting against the construction of concrete plant near his muffler shop, but, much like the Coen brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN, it could very well be seen as a modern update of “The Book of Job” – an orthodox priest (Valeryi Grishko) even quotes from the scripture of Job to Koyla at one point.
As much as I admired the solid filmmaking framework of LEVIATHAN, I can’t say I’d really recommend it. I didn’t feel a connection to any of its characters who all appear to be vulgar, vodka-swigging caricatures, and the drawn-out length (141 minutes) is punishing at times. Maybe we’re supposed to feel like we’re being punished for enduring Koyla’s punishment.
Yet the film has instances of great effectiveness, especially visually (Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography stunningly captures the surrounding terrain), and it has considerable value as a vicious put-down of the Russian regime under Putin.
The exact opposite of a crowd pleaser (a crowd-downer?), LEVIATHAN is for folks who need no spoonful of sugar to help make their medicine go down. It’s just that the end results of this particular brand of meds rubbed me more wrong than right.