‘Leviathan’ pits one man against the establishment

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“Leviathan” is a Russian film that confronts the miserable conditions, general drunkenness, hypocrisy and corruption that riddles that country. The question is, how did this film get made in Russia?

Even more wondrous, how did it become the country’s entry in the foreign language Oscar race? Did anybody tell Putin about this? Because his portrait hangs directly behind the desk of the film’s chief bad guy. The connection is unavoidable.

Of course, the basic plight here — an average guy runs up against the gigantic immoveable monster that is both the establishment and life itself — could take place in any culture. It’s just made more plausible by a landscape filled with ruined and rundown buildings, a culture where the law means little and a society in which virtually everyone is stumbling drunk on vodka by nighttime.

Pity Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a jack of all trades who lives in a coastal town on the Barents Sea with his pretty wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and teen son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), from an earlier marriage. It’s a stark area, but Kolya lives on a hill overlooking the sea in a house that’s been passed down through his family for generations.

It’s a nice spot, which is why the local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), is trying to seize it with some sort of eminent domain scam, hoping to build a resort there and rake in the rubles. Vadim — he’s the one with Putin’s picture in his office — is basically a gangster with a title, and he’s angry that Kolya is fighting the takeover.

Helping in that fight is an old army buddy of Kolya’s, a lawyer from Moscow named Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov). Dmitriy arrives in town with more than legal angles — he knows Vadim will sway the courts to his will, so he also has evidence of Vadim’s many illegal activities and is more than willing to blackmail the mayor.

Unfortunately, everything conspires against Kolya, from Lilya’s mounting depression to Vadim’s thuggish ways to Dmitriy’s uncontrolled desires. But mostly it’s just the system. When Dmitriy and Kolya go to file a complaint against Vadim, who showed up drunk and threatening at Kolya’s the previous night, the police throw Kolya in jail, not Vadim. It’s that kind of life.

Director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev has plenty of visuals to emphasize the size of the monster Kolya’s up against, from high cliffs above the sea to an abandoned church to the skeleton of a whale washed up on the beach. The entire film has an immensity about it, hovering over frail characters.

Kolya’s sad situation is both universal and specific. Yes, this could happen anywhere, but you get the feeling it happens often in Russia. The only real hope here is that a movie this hard on the motherland could be made there.





Rated R for language and some sexuality/graphic nudity

Running time: 140 minutes

“Leviathan” (R ) A man tries to save his family home from being taken over by a corrupt government official in this dark, complex Russian Oscar nominee that offers little hope for the motherland. (140 minutes) GRADE: B+