Starring-Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov
Scott’s Review #370
Reviewed January 16, 2016
Nominated for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film (Russian), Leviathan is a tale of governmental corruption at the expense of the “little man”, mixed in with a family drama- and is quite heavy at times. The film is very good- sort of a standard, tense drama, if you will, though a bit slow moving at times. This is not so much a complaint as it is an observation. As with many Foreign language films versus American films, there is more nudity (not in a gratuitous way) and less explosions, which is an admiration and a hats off to foreign language films as a whole. Leviathan made me think of the overall foreign language film genre in that assessment as it did not need CGI or any other “bells and whistles” commonplace in current American film.
Set in a gorgeous coastal area of Russia, and featuring a plethora of landscape-most of the film in outdoor shots, Leviathan is a story with religious overtones mixed in with the drama. “Good vs. evil” and both sides questioning god or defending their actions for god are featured message points.
The protagonist of the story, Koyla, lives with his second wife, Lilya, and his son Roma on the coast in a fishing town. Koyla is hot-headed and expresses rage from time to time, but is a good man living a simple life as a mechanic. The corrupt Mayor of the town is determined to take Koyla’s land and build a villa, offering Koyla an insulting sum of money to sell his land. The disputed land is currently in legal hands, and Koyla’s handsome lawyer friend, Dima, arrives from Moscow to handle the case and lend support to the family in their uneasy times.
A secondary plot involves a love triangle between Koyla/Dima/Lilya, and Roma’s hatred for Lilya that, while somewhat interesting on its own terms, did not do much to further the main plot and I am not sure how necessary it was to the film as a whole. It had nothing to do with the land dispute and was left unresolved.
The clear “hero” of the film is Koyla, but he is no saint himself. He drinks heavily, at one point smacks his son (albeit deservedly so), and has a temper. But his land is being taken from him by a corrupt figure so that makes Koyla empathetic and likable.
Leviathan is a compelling film as the clear message received is “bully vs. beleaguered working man”. The mayor is a fat, unattractive, drunken bully and the audience is clearly instructed to root against him. He has the town justice department in his back pocket and uses blackmail to achieve success. The film brings religion into the plot as a priest tells the mayor he is doing “gods work”, thereby justifying his motivations (at least in his own mind). Later, a defeated Koyla has a conversation with a religious man questioning god and gods actions.
The film has a cold feel to it- despite being set in what I believed to be the summer or fall. There is a chill in the air, it always looks windy, and the look of the film is dark. This is effective as Leviathan is a dreary film and one with an unhappy ending. Life is harsh and cruel and the film extends that message.
I did not quite understand Lilya’s motivations and not much is known about her character, despite being heavily involved in the events. What motivates her to have an affair with Dima? Why does she return to Koyla? Is she unhappy and seeking a more glamorous life? This can be assumed, but is never made clear so therefore she is a mysterious character.
Enjoyable to me most was the final thirty minutes or so of the film. When a characters sudden death occurs, I was left wondering if a particular character was responsible for the death before it was revealed what truly happened.
A cinematic treat and an interesting premise, mixed with a bit of religion and a whodunit of sorts, make the Russian film Leviathan, a worthy viewing experience.