Friday, 23 May 2014

Cannes 2014 review: Leviathan (Левиафан) - a new Russian masterpiece

Левиафан (2014)

Andrei Zvagintsev's latest is a very strong contender for the Palme d'Or - a mix of Hobbes, Chekov and the Bible, full of extraordinary images and magnificent symmetary

Andrei Zvagintsev's Leviathan is a sober and compelling tragic drama of corruption and intimidation in contemporary Russia, set in a desolate widescreen panorama. This is a movie which seems to be influenced by the Old Testament and Elia Kazan; it starts off looking like a reasonably scaled drama about a little guy taking on big government. Then it escalates to a new plane in which man is taking on the biggest, cruellest, and most implacable government of all, and the final sequence of devastation must surely be influenced by the final moments of Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice.

It is acted and directed with unflinching ambition, moving with deliberative slowness, periodically accelerating at moments of high drama and suspense. It isn't afraid of massive symbolic moments and operatic gestures; I was fractionally sceptical about these at the time, but they live and throb in my head hours after the final credit-crawl. Leviathan incidentally features a horribly watchable performance from Roman Madyanov as a crooked mayor who resembles a hideous reincarnation of Broderick Crawford in the 1949 municipal graft classic All The King's Men — with a hint of Boris Yeltsin. I hadn't heard of this 51-year-old Russian performer before now. His excellent performance makes me think it's a pity Cannes doesn't have a best supporting actor prize.

The film's hero is Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov), a car mechanic with a beautiful second wife Lilya (Elena Liadova), and a teenage son Roma (Sergei Pokhodaev) from his first marriage. It is his fortune or misfortune to have a modest family-built property on prime real estate: a beautiful spot on the waterfront in the lapland wilderness of north-western Russia. Now a crooked mayor Vadim (Madyanov) wants this land to build his own gruesome luxury dacha, and slaps the Russian equivalent of a Compulsory Purchase Order on Kolia: he gets this precious land for a derisory sum. But Kolia calls on the help of his old army buddy Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) who is now a slick lawyer in Moscow and he has arrived in this remote region with a file full of incriminating evidence on Vadim which he promises his old comrade will induce Vadim to back off. But it soon becomes clear that getting the old homestead back isn't precisely what Dimitri has in mind. And his motives for helping aren't what they first appear.

Leviathan shows a world governed by drunken, depressed, aggressive men: there is a brilliant scene in which Kolia and Vadim square up late at night, both wrecked on vodka. Later, Kolia and his buddies will go on a hunting trip: they have gallons of vodka, rifles and one even has his old army issue Kalashnikov — and for targets they use portraits of Russian leaders from Brezhnev to Gorbachev. Yeltsin, "the boozy conductor" is indulgently not included and the guy bringing the portraits says he has kept back the more modern portraits — until they get "some historical perspective". (In fact, the current President's picture is hanging coyly in Vadim's handsomely appointed office.) Endlessly, officials talk about the Russian criminal code, giving chapter and verse from the rule book. But it is all a cynical nonsense. What counts is money and power. At the film's courtroom scenes at the beginning and end, the court President babbles through the charges and verdicts robotically. It is gibberish.

Kolia finds himself at the centre of a perfect storm of poisoned destiny. He is a poor man who through a quirk of fate has what others want: a beautiful wife, a handsome property. He is at the focal point of contemporary Russia's most dangerous forces: smart lawyers, gangster-rich politicians, arrogant priests — Vadim is a close friend of an icily dogmatic Orthodox churchman who is impatient and contemptuous of this politician uneasy private confidences. Dimitri, for his part, says that as a lawyer he is only interested in facts. Poor Kolia is at the mercy of events that will happen behind his back: key scenes and moments occur agonisingly off-screen, although it isn't hard to guess what has happened.

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Dir: Andrei Zviagyntsev. Russia. 2014. 141mins

Thoroughly Russian down to the smallest detail, this astounding but terrible portrait of a world going to the dogs under the full protection of law and order - and the Holy Church as well - could fit in, with only minor tuning, into any other background around the world. The sheer impact of its images will stun audiences even before they find out what it is all about. The northern Russia landscapes, all bathed in a chilly blue light that seem to freeze souls are the backdrop,and Philip Glass’ mighty waves of sound leave no doubt that an unusual experience is about to unfold on the screen. As it indeed does.

As a matter of fact, this tale of graft, multiple betrayals, corruption and larceny is so universally familiar that one could imagine it unfolding anywhere. In this case, however, it takes place in a small town on the shore of the Barents Sea (think Murmansk if it’s any help). The crooked mayor Cheleviat (Roman Madianov), complete with Putin’s portrait on the wall behind his desk, fancies a piece of land by the sea overlooking a glorious landscape which belongs to an impulsive, hot-tempered mechanic named Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov), who lives there with his wife Lilia (Elena Liadova) and his son from a previous marriage, Roma (Sergei Pokhodaev).

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