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Film Review


The Leviathan originally referred to a huge sea creature and is mentioned extensively in the Old Testament. Thirty four verses in the Book of Job refer to the creature and there are mentions in Psalms and Isaiah. From Job describing the Leviathan: "Who dares open the doors of his mouth, ringed about with his fearsome teeth?" "Nothing on earth is his equal- a creature without fear." The name became synonymous with any large sea monster, and in the Middle Ages, a huge demon sent to swallow the damned. The great English philosopher, Hobbes, published (1651) Leviathan, In which he argued that the state must be powerful and should be obeyed to avoid civil disorder. Melville in Moby Dick uses leviathan as a synonym for whales. Even those not Biblically literate know the story of Job: a righteous man, with wealth and family, who is made to endure great suffering to test whether his faith in God is a consequence of his comfortable life or whether his righteousness is integral to his character regardless of circumstances. An important dialogue begins in Job: if God is caring, why do the righteous suffer? It is a question that haunts every religion.

Andrei Zvyagintsev, an award winning Russian filmmaker best known in the West for The Return (2003) and Elena (2011), shows the malign power and corruption of the Russian state under Putin in his latest film, Leviathan. The title seem appropriate for the tragic story of the state and the church oppressing a humble honest man. He is a Job. Zvyagintsev presents Kolya, a hard working, hard drinking auto repair man with his wife and son living in their modest house, built by his own hands. The house overlooks the tiny decaying fishing town on the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia. The physical setting is spectacular, harsh and beautiful, ringed with mountains, cliffs, and the sea. But half of the town's buildings are abandoned, and the others unpainted and deteriorating. The only industry is the fish packing factory, where many of the town's women work. It is as if the town has been abandoned by the state. The main sport seems to be drinking, with everyone downing enormous quantities of vodka. Kolya is a good father, but has remarried, and his teenage son from his first marriage hates his stepmother, for no good reason.

The town's corrupt mayor, Vadim, with a large photograph of Putin behind his desk, wants to build something on the site of Kolya's house, and has directed the town to seize the property and pay Kolya only a fraction of its worth. Kolya is trying to fight back, and an old Army buddy, Dimitri, now a high powered Moscow attorney, arrives to help him. Dimi (Dimitri) realizes that he will never be able to persuade the town's government to pay a fair price for the property, so decides to research the major. He uncovers years of corruption and ill deeds. Dimi intends to use this to force the mayor to back down or at least pay fair compensation. The story begins to gain momentum here and we see how contemporary Russian culture is often thuggish. The glimpses of small town Russian life are jarring with many memorable scenes, some humorous. A picnic, fueled by vodka, turns into a shooting fest as everyone brings their rifles and old army weapons. One of Kolya's friends, a traffic police chief, brings photographs of past Soviet leaders to use for targets. The casual coarseness of life and language seems to echo the state of the town. A corrupt bishop, a friend of the mayor, cannot recognize the distortion of religion, and in a lengthy sermon extolls early Russia under Alexander Nevsky and praises power as being sanctioned by God. As the church service ends and well dressed people get into a line of expensive cars, the scene underscores the alliance of the church with those who rule. The contrast between those cars and the disintegrating fishing boats grounded in the harbor is dramatic. A skeleton of a huge whale on a picturesque rocky beach seems an apt metaphor for the decay everywhere. There is a misery and hopelessness here that corrodes everything.

The acting simply could not be better, even minor roles. In just a few minutes of screen time the director defines his characters. The cinematography is equal to the stunning setting with many scenes simply gorgeous. Even modest interiors have a beauty to them and nearly every scene could be a handsome still photograph. The soundtrack is moving and includes a work from Philip Glass. Leviathan is very powerful, sad and brilliant, and certainly a cri de coeur against Putin's Russia. It seems surprising that this film was selected by the Russian Film Board for their entry in the Oscar nominations. And it was partially funded by the government, which the Minster of Culture said will never happen again. It is no exaggeration to call Leviathan a masterpiece. I loved and was very moved by it and convinced that this film will be as highly regarded 50 years from now as it is praised now. It is one of the five nominees for an Oscar for best foreign language film along with two other very strong contenders: Ida and Timbuktu. Running time: 140 minutes. Just opened at the Embarcadero; does not seem to be playing elsewhere yet in the Bay Area.

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