In the Old Testament, the word “leviathan” refers to a sea monster; but the Old Testament has lost some of its clout, and fear of sea monsters is a thing of the past. The film “Leviathan” makes similar metaphorical allusions to present day Russia. Once a feared giant of the international scene, Russia is now trying to rise up from the depths, pulled up by a overtly macho president riding bareback on a horse. Judo flips, threatening neighbours and bombers buzzing past Cornwall are all part of the plan. However, like the image on the “Leviathan” poster, the Russia depicted in “Leviathan” has been rotted by corruption; only bones remain.
The film is set in the isolated village of Teriberka, by the Barents Sea. It is a place of awesome natural beauty, but also abandoned houses, empty vodka bottles and uncomfortable silence. In this setting, a power-hungry mayor tries to take a sea-side home from a hardworking mechanic, with a new wife and son at his side. Allies arrive to assist the mechanic; however, their real motives soon become apparent. No one can be trusted.
A microcosm of modern Russian life, the film takes a dark, harrowing look at a constantly changing political landscape where notions of power ebb and flow; and the bones of a distant past lay on the shore, the flesh long since picked over by post- Perestroika opportunists. Left with nothing but bones, denied even a modest home by the sea, the family under siege symbolizes a Russia that is tired of the uncertainty and corruption of modern Russia. Perhaps it is a Russia that is thinking back to life under Communist dictatorship which, ironically, must have seemed stable, predictable, and safer in comparison. Perhaps it is the film’s not-too-subtle attack on contemporary Russian society that lead to it losing the best film prize at the Golden Eagle awards (the Russian Oscars), despite a nomination for best foreign film at the Oscars and winning best film at the Golden Globes. Throughout 2014, “Ida,” and “Leviathan” dominated film awards across Europe. Yet, apparently many Russians disliked the film; and some have accused the director of something called “Russophobia”. On the other hand, Americans love a dark, bleak, depressing portrait of Russia. If “Leviathan” had images of people queuing for toilet paper, it probably would have snatched the Best Foreign Film Oscar from “Ida”.
Several adjectives have been used to describe “Leviathan” – “dark”, “biblical”, “epic”, “stunning” and unforgettable. Overwhelmingly positive reviews are one good reason to see the film. However, another is the fact that cinematic leviathans like this will soon be extinct in Russia. Apparently, in response to the film’s negative reception at home, the Russian Ministry of Culture will no longer fund “negative” films. So, be sure to come out and experience a truly great, epic film before the mighty Russian film industry hunts down its own cinematic wonders, until only a massive pile of bones remains.
Note: this review appears in the April issue of Wow Magazine