Combustible Celluloid
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With: Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov, Sergey Pokhadaev, Anna Ukolova, Alexey Rozin
Written by: Oleg Negin, Andrei Zvyagintsev
Directed by: Andrei Zvyagintsev
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality/graphic nudity
Language: Russian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 142
Date: 12/31/2014

Leviathan (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Of a Serpent Age

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As complex as a novel, and apparently loosely based on the Book of Job, Andrey Zvyagintsev's official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film, Leviathan is not as arty as his previous films The Return (2003) and Elena (2011), but it's still brainy enough to please hardcore cinephiles. (Note: not to be confused with last year's amazing fish documentary of the same name, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel.)

Set in a small town in Russia, a dried-up fishing village (where carcasses rot on the beaches), Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) makes a living running a car shop. Despite some hothead moments, he seems relatively happy with his pretty wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his son from a previous marriage, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev).

Unfortunately, a crooked mayor has found a way to steal Kolya's land and it doesn't seem like Kolya can do anything about it. Various attempts through official channels yield frustratingly abrupt results. One of his best friends, a hotshot lawyer in Moscow, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) arrives to try to do something about it, both legitimately and otherwise. (He has a binder full of damning evidence against the mayor's character.) But that's only about half the story.

The "leviathan" of the title is a sea serpent that now apparently represents the government, but I'll have to leave it to Biblical scholars to dig any deeper than that. The movie has some wiry moments of deadpan humor, and spiky moments of surprising human fallibility that make the densely political and judicial story move with fervor and heat. On the one hand, it's smarter, denser, and more profound that what usually gets nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, but on the other hand, it may be a disappointment for fans of Zvyagintsev's previous, more meditative work.

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