Thursday, February 26, 2015

Leviathan (opens in Cleveland February 27th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre)

[LEVIATHAN opens in Cleveland on Friday February 27th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]

Review by Milan Paurich



A masterpiece by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the greatest Russian director to emerge in the post-Soviet era, LEVIATHAN sucks you in like a vise grip. I think I held my breath for the entire 141-minute running time. With intonations of Chekhov (real estate squabbles) and Dostoevsky (crime, punishment), Zvagintsev’s Job-like parable set in Putin’s Russia has an intensity of feeling that seems almost primordial. 

Although set in present day, LEVIATHAN might as well be taking place hundreds of years ago. The unsullied natural setting—an Arctic town in northern Russia—is as stark and elemental as its quasi-Biblical narrative. Kolya (magnificently played by Aleksey Serebryakov), Zvyagintsey’s everyman protagonist, will lose everything he holds dear during the course of the film. His home, land, wife, son, best friend and livelihood will all be brutally taken away from him through a domino-like series of catastrophic events. Which doesn’t mean that Kolya goes down easily or without putting up a fight. But when the gods have seemingly conspired against you, raging to the heavens will only get you so far. Either way he’s screwed.



Kolya’s first mistake is refusing the mayor’s offer to buy his property. A mini-despot who runs his fiefdom like an iron-fisted New Jersey crime boss, Vadim (Roman Madianov) could give Dick Cheney tips on playing dirty. After Kolya spurns him, Vadim doesn’t just get mad, he gets even. Soon, the entire municipality has aligned themselves against Kolya, including the local priest who proves as brazenly craven and corrupt as Vadim himself.

Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), the Moscow attorney (and old family friend) who takes Kolya’s case only stirs the hornet’s nest after threatening to expose Vadim’s past criminal infractions. When Dmitri recklessly embarks upon an affair with Kolya’s long-suffering wife, Lilya (Elena Liadova), Vadim and his minions have all the ammunition they need to take Kolya down once and for all. The cosmic fallout is equal parts Kafka-esque nightmare and Old Testament fire and brimstone. Evil trumps virtue again.


In earlier films like THE RETURN and ELENA, Zvyagintsev impressed like a nouveau Tarkovsky (albeit one less bogged down in metaphysics) or Sokurov (but with more of an interest in classical storytelling). Ironically,
LEVIATHAN sometimes feels like an off-shoot of the New Romanian Cinema with its emphasis on heightened naturalism and exposure of societal ills. Yet it’s as quintessentially Russian as a bowl of steaming borscht chased with an icy shot of Stolichnaya vodka. LEVIATHAN is also Zvyagintsev’s most accessible movie to date: his previous films worked on more of an intellectual than emotional level. That’s probably why it scored a U.S. distribution deal with heavy-hitter Sony Pictures Classics and garnered a richly deserved Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. 

Despite generating considerable controversy in its native land for Zvyagintsev’s scathing indictment of the status quo,
LEVIATHAN was actually released in Russia. And unlike past homegrown masters (Tarkovsky, Eisenstein, et al) who were forced to pay dearly for their art after running afoul of Soviet censors, Zvyagintsev continues to live, and hopefully work, as a free man. It’s definitely not for all tastes, but if you’re willing to meet it half way chances are you’ll be sucked into its inexorable maelstrom, too. Like Kolya squaring off against Vadim, resistance is pretty much futile. 4 out of 4 stars.

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