There is something relentless, inexorable, about director Andrei Zvyagintsev's latest missive from contemporary Russia - a new moral mousetrap laced with dark gallows humour about a man's futile struggle against the establishment in a decaying small town in the Barents sea.
Leviathan carries that singular sense of ominous Russian fatalism that can occasionally make it look far too much like a broadcast from a nihilist deity toying absent-mindedly with the frail hopes and dreams of human beings. Assuming, of course, that such a deity would exist - the darkness that runs through Mr. Zvyagintsev's fourth feature, where the Orthodox Church goes hand in hand with the corruption and pettiness of elected officials, seems to eject any sort of faith and hope, presenting instead a Promethean condemnation to eternal struggle.
Prometheus, here, is Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), who strives valiantly and beyond all reasonable expectations to hold on to his family's plot of prime-location real estate by the sea, even if it means losing his sullen teenage son and second wife in the process. The land is coveted by the local venal mayor Vadim (Roman Madianov), who, with church, government and justice in his pocket, has effectively all but expropriated it, and is just letting Kolya tire himself out before yanking it off him like a dog on a leash chasing a bone eternally out of reach.
Much has been made of Leviathan's apparent finger-pointing at the regime of Vladimir Putin, its undisguised despair and displeasure for corruption and subjugation fitting in with the horror stories propagated in the media about contemporary Russia. But in fact Mr. Zvyagintsev is not talking so much exclusively of modern-day Russia as he is channelling a complaint about a state of affairs that transcends one government and seems in-built or in-bred. At the film's midpoint, a sublimely edgy picnic-cum-target-practice-trip sees local friends pull out old framed pictures of Soviet rulers, from Lenin and Stalin to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, to serve as practice targets; one of them says there's "not enough historical perspective yet" to add the current crop. The suggestion is that Putin is only the latest (and maybe not even the last) in a series of absolute rulers absolutely corrupted by absolute power.
Certainly the issue is not exclusive to Russia and could be extended to all sorts of regimes all over the world, but when mixed with the peculiar dark, tempestuous melancholy of the "Russian soul", it reaches new heights. Hence Leviathan's exquisitely oblique x-ray of a country that seems unable to overcome an inexorable slide into the abyss, the breathtaking beauty of the landscape surrounding Kolya's quicksand destiny suggesting an immutable nature where all men will eventually succumb to time and go the way of the derelict fishing boats and beached-whale skeletons dotting the shore.
It's not even a particularly original theme for Russian cinema - Boris Khlebnikov's A Long and Happy Life, with a similar David vs Goliath plot, or Yuri Bykov's The Fool, come to mind - but there is indeed something extraordinarily universal about its tale of a man stubbornly, and hopelessly, battling the establishment. The thoughtfulness of Mr. Zvyagintsev's prior Elena is here augmented by an expansive yet daunting combination of formalist aesthetics and moral questioning, the scenes between the mayor and the local bishop (Valery Grichko) raising obliquely many of the film's central questions about morality and truth in a place where such words can be, and are, routinely manipulated.
Nobody ever said Leviathan was an easy film to see, or even to love, and it does seem to revel a bit too much in its meticulous construction, but that is also part of what makes it such a towering, mesmerizing picture: it's about, to quote from Brecht and Weill, "what keeps mankind alive".
Cast Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madianov, Anna Ukolova, Aleksei Rozin, Sergei Pokhodaev, Valery Grichko, Sergei Bachursky, Platon Kamenev
Director Andrei Zvyagintsev; screenwriters Oleg Negin and Mr. Zvyagintsev; cinematographer Mikhail Krichman (colour, widescreen); designer Andrei Ponkratov; costumes Anna Bartuli; editor Anna Mass; producers Aleksandr Rodniansky and Sergei Melkumov; production companies Non-Stop Production and the Ruarts Foundation for Contemporary Art
Screened February 28th 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener DVD)