One of the most important films to come out of Russia in recent years, Leviathan is visually majestic, philosophically illuminating and hauntingly poignant. Through all of this, it has a simple yet engaging story to tell; that of the common man struggling against an elitist system in power.
The common man in this instance is a skilled mechanic named Nikolai, played by Alexei Serebriakov, whose property lies on a piece of land sought after by a crooked mayor. Unable to match the mayor’s underhanded tactics due to his own lack of intellect, Nikolai calls an old army friend who has since become a lawyer working in Moscow. A game of cunning then ensues between the lawyer and mayor, the latter finding himself blackmailed. Realizing his position and potentially the outcome of an upcoming election could be in peril, the mayor feels threatened by this new obstacle and begins working out how best to deal with it.
From there, the film verges off into other unexpected directions that will take its audience by surprise. Nikolai remains central to the plot throughout, but around him we see settings and characters change. Much of Leviathan’s power comes through focusing on how Nikolai, more so than the viewer, reacts to his changing environment as many parts of his life seemingly spiral out of his control.
In the end the film hints that these events were in control by some power higher than Nikolai himself and, ultimately, you’re left to question whether there’s much he could have done to affect such outcomes in any meaningful way. Within such a system, there’s perhaps little else that a man in Nikolai’s position can do but relent to this higher power.
Biblical parallels to the story of Job and subtle attacks on the elite of its native country are clearly illustrated, though it is somewhat refreshing to see a film of such grandiose scale place its emphasis on a humble working class man as the central character. I think this is partly why it won the Best Screenplay award at 2014’s Cannes Film Festival. Producer Alexander Rodnyansky said it best when he described the film in an interview with Variety website last year:
“It (Leviathan) deals with some of the most important social issues of contemporary Russia while never becoming an artist’s sermon or a public statement; it is a story of love and tragedy experienced by ordinary people.”
10 / 10
Leviathan is showing at Plymouth Arts Centre cinema from 23 – 29 January