Film Review: Leviathan (2014) Russian Corruption Captured Magnificently in this classical Tragedy

Leviathan (2014)

Nb: This review contains some spoilers

My familiarity with Russian cinema has now doubled  up to two films  – firstly the outstanding, yet haunting 2nd World War film Come and See – and now this dramatic tragedy from director Andrey Zvagintsev. The film is a bleak satire on the endemic nature of corruption in Russian politics / society and from my tiny sample size, the Russians seem a dour lot. Though evidentally there is much reason for them to be so.  As the title suggests, the target of the film-makers eye is vast, yet it is shot intimately through the fate of Kolya (Alexeï Serebriakov), an ordinary Russian man who exemplifies Everyman traits in his proud masculinity – physically capable and productive – he lives in a remote coastal fishing village in his self-built house, with his own garage, wife and son.  Naturally, he also drinks an awful lot of vodka – never has a stereotype appeared quite so accurate – barely a scene passes without at least one person, across the status-spectrum imbibing the national drink with whole-hearted spirit.

The plot that serves as the allegory for broader institutional corruption centres around a dispute over the ownership of Kolya’s land. The local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), insists he has the right to buy the land at a set price, which is clearly dramatically undervalued according to Kolya who has asked an old friend, now a Moscow lawyer, Dimitri, to assist him fight his case. The film then divides its focus on Kolyas life, with friends and family and the battle to defeat the mayor. The latter plot initially seems promising thanks to the acquisition of material information that would easily threaten the position of the Mayor were it to be made public.  Inevitably events do not unfurl as Kolya would wish, as his life and relationships threaten to collapse amid violence, threats and betrayal. It is a bleak but exquisitely sharp depiction of the ominous degree of power held over the citizens by the state.

Whilst the narrative arc of man facing impossible battle versus state and widespread corruption is not new, it’s depiction here is still thoroughly well executed.  The film opens with beautiful photography that captures the vast essence of Russia itself, with wide shots of the grand expanse of mountain ranges and rural isolation.  At the beginning and close of the film it lingers over the long since dead fossil of a leviathan like creature on the beach.  The geography constantly places the characters as vulnerable contrasts with the might of the reach of the mountains, extending the metaphor of gargantuan power to the essence of the country itself.

From the opening scenes the spectre of corruption is made clear,  with a conversation with local policemen regarding Kolya fixing a car for his friend. Soon after, Kolya makes a remark to his friend that presumes corruption within the police force is normalised in this world – a minor mark but one that presages the greater fight to come. Politically the target is quite obvious.

Firstly on a shooting trip with Dimitri, family and friends, two of the characters draw out portraits of Russian leaders past – ready to be shot at, they discuss if they have Yeltzin and then ask if they have one more recent… although the allusion becomes more concrete in a later scene where we see Vadim in his office – hanging up on wall behind him is a portrait of a younger, but still undeniably balding Vladimir Putin. There can be no mistaking the association.

Vadim deploys violence and pulls strings to ensure his desires are achieved, with and his position is given a form of ‘validation’ through his discussions with the priest – representing the influence and status that the Russian Orthodox Church has over the population, it further strengthen’s Vadim’s stranglehold on the community. The priest advises him to fight back to assert his power in the community, and not to confess – because this would be weak – an attitude that many viewers might be inclined to impose upon their current commander-in-chief.

As Kolya seeks to overturn and appeal the court’s verdict, he inevitably meets with a bureacracy that is hostile and not without Orwellian oppression and Kafka-esque absurdity. The absence of anyone to speak to, and arbitrary arrests attest to this. I’m aware those references are becoming something of a cliche, yet having read both the echoes undoubtedly resonate in many a narrative that tackles related themes, as this film does too. The manner in which Kolya’s life begins to spiral out of control is not limited to direct political suppression from above, however,  but even from sources closer to home thanks to his old friend Dimitri, the Moscow professional who arrives and screws over an old friend in the provinces which sparks a further series of events that get a helpless Kolya into deeper trouble.

The mood is downcast, and the tone excoriating, yet it is never less than compulsive viewing, from the capturing of the isolation of the community to the menacing reality of political authority, all actors play their part superbly well.  To come back to the photography again, the director provides striking imagery of desolation, including the aforementioned coastal skeleton of the deceased giant to the fire-lit shots of the abandoned building Kolya’s son frequents with his friends; the perspective is all encompassing and all consuming and ought to be on anyone’s to watch list if they’ve not see it already. 9/10

8 Assorted Micro Reviews of Films Worth Watching

Further to a previous post featuring some reviews in miniature of some enjoyable possibly non-mainstream films, I thought I’d offer up another arbitrarily chosen number of films to promote in this blog. Mainstreamy or not, I simply liked them for their various appeals and wish to advocate their worth here – from classic film noir via experimental german madness to bizarrely bonkers french stop motion animation – a little bit of everything. From the forties to the naughties, I think these films are emblematic of the perpetual diversity of the film-making genre, and are a representation of sorts of the breadth of the spectrum of possibilities.

Charting in chronological order then:

 

The Maltese Falcon

(1941) classic film noir, adapting Daschiel Hammett’s memorable tale, it couldn’t be anyone other than Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Faithful to the text, it brings alive the classic tropes of the gumshoe life that here centres around the eponymous object of desire. Sam initially receives the demands of the noirishly named Miss Wonderly ( Mary Astor ) on a case that transpires to be more complicated that first imagined, taking a dark turn following his partner’s murder. Spade is thrown into the mystery as he seeks to establish the truth behind The Maltese Falcon.  One of those rare cases where one can genuinely wonder whether the film is actually more enjoyable than the book, though both are great fun. 8.5/10

 

Laura – (1944) – a celebrated noir, and for good reason as this 1940’s classic spins a complex – narratively speaking – whodunnit where the satisfaction lies in its execution in its entirety, rather than the revelation of who the culprit is. In the  tradition of noir,  the suspects who avoid arrest remain silently condemned for posession of their own guilty secrets or foibles that get revealed as the chase unfurls and ‘Laura’ is no different. Waldo Lydecker,(the magnificent Clifton Webb) an effete middle-aged bachelor and scribe opens the narrative, affecting an elaborate voice-over as he introduces his relationship with the apparently dead Laura to the the gumshoe in question. The detective is really not the focal point of the film, unlike those featuring a Sam Spade or Phil Marlowe; Macpherson is here instead a pulse that keeps the story circulating among the more interesting supporting characters. There is a campness to the mood of the film, inevitably from the off given Lydecker’s personality, which adds a lighter touch, though it is its extraction of delusion and the darker side from all involved that leads to its success.  7/10

 

Cool Hand Luke – (1967): Paul Newman is as magnetic as always in this film of existential rebellion, the fine portrayal of Luke Jackson, a man who refuses to conform to the whims of the prison guard system. The narrative set up plays as an allegory for continually refusing to be broken by authoritarian rule, and Jackson’s continual efforts to escape expectation, quite literally in the final act of the film, provides an attractive draw. 7/10

 

 

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970): Werner Herzog in his early days produces a baffling piece that requires either close attention or utterly detached viewing.  Reading around other opinions after the event can proffer up academic deconstructions of a commentary on the madness of human nature; as seen through a quite literal microcosm of an isolated dwarf community, presumed to be held prisoners by an off-screen foe. Perhaps this is true,  the film at least merits a repeat viewing.

There is an undeniable absurdity to some of the scenes which would chime true with a narration that condemns appeals to innate meaning in our actions, where the line between sanity and reason, and cruelty and madness becomes very blurred during some particularly disturbing, and also occasionally  amusing scenes. It is a fascinating film, and watching with company will certainly provoke discussion afterwards, but I must admit at this point I cannot offer up a clear cut analysis or description of this film.  But that won’t stop me recommending people check it out all the same. Appears to have elements of a Lord of the Flies-esque reductionism about it. Also contains a mock crucifixion of a monkey. Have I sold it yet? Look it’s Werner Herzog. You won’t forget the film, I’ll say that, and frankly that’s what a film generally asks for. ?/10

From the esoteric – to the more straightforwardly accessible:

My Neighbour Taturo (1988) From the popular Studio Ghibli comes one of Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier works, but also one of his most popular. It’s an animated tale surrounding two girls’ – Saskia and May –  interactions with forest spirits, including the enchanting eponymous creature, who appears to be drawn up as part teddy-part-bear-part-bunny. The connection with nature and forest spirits is a familiar theme for Miyazaki and the tale here is a joyful concoction of adventure, family bonds and innocence. Very family friendly, it is as enjoyable for adults as it is for the little ones however, as the magical animation is accompanied by an intelligent script brought to life by fine voice acting. One of many great Miyazaki features, and if it’s your first hopefully, it will spark interest in discover many more. 8/10

 

Dazed and Confused (1993): Another Richard Linklater film here, and another one that condenses its’ focus to a short timeframe – here it is 24 hours of teenagers celebrating the last day of high school. Not that you notice the timeframe at all, as you are always immediately drawn into the characters – a Linklater trademark. I do really enjoy how successful he is at developing an engrossing narrative strand that succeeds regardless of how contained the situation is – a skill he develops brilliantly in the Before Trilogy that spanned the following decade and a half.  As a microcosm of growing up within the school complex, and all the attendant male ‘codes’ it is entertaining observation. Also noticeable for a very young Ben Affleck as one of the high school bullies, intent on ‘hazing’ the new intake. Film is rougher round the edges than his later work but solid nonetheless. 7/10

 

Rushmore -(1998) early Wes Anderson but still replete with the would-be signature motifs and themes relating to growing up and family identities. Charming tale of Max (Schwarzmann), a sensitive ambitious schoolkid who has great designs for the school and an even greater one for an attractive teacher. Rivalry of sorts ensues with the typically hilarious Bill Murray as Herman, playing the avuncular-grouch he can do so well. Complete with a score that is enchantingly melodic and gentle, it is never less than amusing, and soaked in colourful spirit. 7/10

some classic thrills:

The Prestige -(2006) Chris Nolan directing, with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman starring as competing magicians who spend their careers engaged in an increasingly violent game of one upmanship with each other. Jackman is the showman who lacks the intuitive genius, Bale the genius, who struggles to sell his trick. Wonderful suspense and thrilling in the idiosyncratic fashion of Nolan’s with an spectacular finish that left me appropriately satisfied. As usual, featuring Michael Caine in his usual excellent supporting role in a Nolan film. Arguably his best feature for me, certainly on a par with Batman Begins for it’s combination of plot, thrill and character arcs.  8.5/10

 

and finally – the bonkers:

A Town Called Panic – (2009) – French stop motion film that is as mad as its title suggests it is going to be. The animation has a retro 70’s theme utilising old farm animal toys as the chief protagonists in this charmingly chaotic film for everyone. Centre  The adventure and the humour is adrenaline fuelled, with its fair share of mad shrieks, but at about 80 minutes is judiciously kept short enough that the madness doesn’t flow over into irritation. The plot: ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Indian’ wish to surprise the old boy ‘Horse’ with a birthday present. They figure to order 50 bricks in to build a barbeque, but instead accidentally order 50 million, which end up destroying the house. Subsequent attempts to rebuild the house are stalled by the continual theft of the walls. Recovering the walls form part of the plot that also features demented evil scientists and Horse trying to impress a Piano teaching Mare. Completely bonkers, but very funny and full of gleeful absurdism. 8/10