Leviathan is among the world’s great films and it is not easy to describe. Ostensibly about the efforts of Kolya, a dim, drunken, angry, violent yet well regarded mechanic, to save his family home from a drunken, crooked, murderous mayor, Vadim, who seeks to acquire it by the application of a dodgy municipal regulation, demolish it and build on the site a luxury tourist hotel and an Orthodox cathedral, and the efforts as well of Kolya’s old army friend Dimitri, now a lawyer, to win a court case or negotiate a better settlement, it is about many other things as well, not least the moral abyss of Putin’s Russia.
A lot of drinking takes place. Blackmail is attempted. Dimitri and Kolya’s second wife Lillia begin an affair. Roma, his son by his first wife, has become a delinquent, hanging round campfires at night with drug-pushing teenagers. Vadim’s goons kidnap Dimitri and threaten him with execution. Lillia disappears, and may have suicided. A local Orthodox priest, holy in his way, counsels Dimitri, a fat serpentine politician of a particular Russian sort, to pursue his big dream, go in harder. The new revived religion collaborates, as religion tends to, with the corrupt new Yeltsinite order of things. In a final sermon, Job is quoted. Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?
None of this conveys the power of what happens, and the way the dark sharp gashed cold landscape hangs over things. We are in a Russia bereft of honour and comfort, soused on vodka and hating its life, under the heel of its accidental rulers, like Chicago in the 1920s. To the victors, the spoils. To the conquered, persecution, misery, guilt and moral desolation.
The director is Andrey Zvyagintsev, who co-wrote it with Oleg Negin, It stars Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov and Roman Madyanov. The leviathan is literal, a great skeleton on harbour mud of what might be a plesiosaur, and we glimpse, or we think we do, a live one in a sea view momentarily. It symbolises, I guess, a long buried noble savagery.
The performances are astonishing. Roman Madyanov as Vadim, evil, obese, heavy drinking and self-disgusted, resembles Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. Elena Lyadiva as Lillia, has the womanly, beautiful, tragic force of Juliette Binoche.
It is hard to describe, and unmissable. See it if you can.