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Andrey Zvyagintsev’s drama Leviathan is a looming beast of a movie. An unremittingly bleak and cold as ice examination of a handful of damaged souls who populate a small coastal town in Russia and the corrupt institutions that govern it. It’s a story of friendship, love, and betrayal, of the strong preying on the weak and of ordinary people rendered impotent when confronted by forces of old and evil. Told with the weight of a religious parable and containing more than a handful of allusions to the country’s political history, it’s a film that unflinchingly gazes into the heart of darkness most human beings are lucky to be ignorant of. This sure ain’t the feel good movie of the season.

Leviathan details the sad story of the Job-like Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov), a middle-aged, vodka-swilling mechanic whose second marriage is crumbling while his relationship with his delinquent son grows ever strained. When the town’s crooked mayor (Roman Madyanov) and his cronies demand he forfeits the beachside property that his house rests on, Kolya recruits his old Army friend and Moscow-based lawyer Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichnkov) to represent the family, though they face an uphill battle given the mayor’s influence over the justice system. Matters are further complicated when Dmitri and Kolya’s wife, Lilia (Elena Lyadova), begin an extramarital affair shortly after his arrival. Dmitri eventually pressures the mayor with sensitive documents in retaliation to his charges, causing the mayor to consider more drastic matters of dealing with Kolya, eventually leading to a tragic and bitter resolution.

Since his arrival on the international film stage with 2003’s The Return, writer/director Zvyagintsev has proven to be one the most promising and interesting filmmakers from a country heralded for its rich cinematic history and tradition. The elegant direction of Leviathan continues to build on the strengths he showcased in the similarly gripping drama of 2011’s Elena. Though his screenplay’s sympathies undoubtedly lie with Kolya, one of the film’s strengths is the way he and Serebryakov, through a masterful performance, resist portraying him as a courageous individual, but rather a stubborn and headstrong fool, as well as a lousy husband and father. Of course the rest of his close circle, fully realized by the equally efficient ensemble cast, display their own moral failings. This aspect of Leviathan, as well as touches of darkly bitter humor, gives the film an added layer of richness.

Leviathan’s grim look at contemporary Russia and human nature is matched by cinematographer’s Mikhail Krichman’s startling photography, remarkable for the way his widescreen compositions capture the stark beauty of the dead fishing town. Through Leviathan’s signature images of the skeleton of a great white whale, intercut with the film’s finale of the local Orthodox priest delivering a sermon to the community and scored to passages from Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, the film’s powerful symbol for a once great country rendered emaciated through institutional corruption and greed is driven home with painful and operatic force.

Watch the trailer for Leviathan

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