Saturday, November 15, 2014

AFi Fest 2014: "Leviathan"

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Runtime: 140 minutes

In 1962, the marketing campaign for Kubrick's Lolita asked, "How on earth did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" After seeing Andrey Zvayagintsev's Leviathan, a similar question is raised: How on earth did the director get state funding to make a film like Leviathan. A scathing satire of modern Russian bureaucracy, Zvyagintsev's fourth film pulls no punches with its criticisms. Taking a page from Paddy Chayefsky's Network, Leviathan is gripping and exhausting proof that sometimes an eloquent scream is better than quiet subversion.

Loosely influenced by the Book of Job and Thomas Hobbes' famous political tract, Zvyagintsev drops the viewer off in the story some time after the seeds of disaster have been sewn. Aging father Koyla (Aleksey Serebryakov) lives a modest life in a rural, town on the Kola Peninsula near the Barent Sea. His humble surroundings, however, are being threatened by the local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), a greedy politician willing to bend the law as he sees fit. For reasons not entirely clear at the start, Vadim wishes to seize Koyla's property for a vaguely defined construction project. Koyla, his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his son don't know enough to properly take on Vadim's thuggish regime, so they enlist the help of Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a successful lawyer from Moscow. 

The actual back and forth struggle of Leviathan is constructed as a set of dominos; once a few key decisions are made, there's no turning back, and no redemption or salvation from on high. Zvyagintsev has that rare ability to turn mordant humor into straight laced drama without becoming po-faced. Leviathan's first hour or so can be laugh out loud funny, and its irreverence towards the country's political elite is like a blast of wind off of the Arctic Circle. This pointed sense of humor eases the viewer into the film's increasingly pessimistic view of Russia's power structures. The writer/director's first three films didn't quite indicate that he was capable of creating such a rich work with such far-reaching implications. Russia's metropolises are never glimpsed in Leviathan, but that's clearly the bull's eye Zvyagintsev is striving to hit. The short answer is that, yes, he does.

In critiquing something as big as, well, the establishment, Zvyagintsev's screenplay is adept at creating genuine drama and well-rounded characters. Vadim, the obvious villain of the piece, isn't necessarily given a "fair" portrayal, but Madyanov thankfully creates an authentically reprehensible figure. And even though there's no questioning of the villain's motives, Zvyagintsev's protagonists are never deified so that the audience can easily root for them. Koyla, for instance, has a habit of flying off the handle when he doesn't get his way, and then copes by swilling too much vodka. Lilya has a mind of her own, but too often remains silent. Therefore, she acts out in secret, and her choices ave traumatizing consequences. As for Dima, his reasoning for taking Koyla's case without charge is left a mystery. He bonds with Koyla and affectionately calls him "bro," but he's not without a capacity for underhanded tactics. His main angle to get the court back in Koyla's favor is simply to blackmail Vadim. As much as we want to see the protagonists emerge victorious, it has more to do with their side of the argument, rather than who they are as people.

As much as Leviathan is a demonstration of Zvyagintsev's screenplay and his work with his cast, its visuals are often arresting. The film is bookended by landscape shots set to the surging sounds of Philip Glass' Akhnaten prelude, which allows Zvyagintsev to grab some truly beautiful wide shots. But the visual accomplishments don't stop with the handful of grandiose images. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, with some help from the far north location of the setting, films Leviathan's weather-beaten homes and rolling hills with a blue-hued, wintery polish. At times, one expects to see frost materialize at the edge of the frame.

Leviathan's only real failing is that it's ultimately too much of a great thing. Though the film has no bad or distracting scenes, the final act loses a bit of control of the pacing. Zvyagintsev takes a bit too long to catch his characters up on what the audience already knows, and then throws in one too many scenes of the aftermath. The pieces all end up in the right place at the end, but Leviathan has a few narrative shortcuts that are left neglected. However, of the potential ending scenes, the true ending (before the closing book end), is excellent and uncomfortably cements the film's linking of political and religious abuses of power. Zvyagintsev makes his points with Leviathan land powerfully, even as he occasionally gets a bit longwinded in the delivery. For better and for worse, that's what can happen when you're mad as hell and you're not gonna take it anymore.

Grade: A-

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