Russians have never put much stock in happy endings. What seems to the rest of the world a permanent, fatalistic pessimism is to them more a matter of everyday survival. So to call “Leviathan” bleak even by Russian standards is saying a lot.
Yet the story is so realistically told, the acting so powerful and the cinematography so gorgeous, it’s easy to see why it just won the Golden Globe for best foreign film and is considered an Oscar front-runner.
As harshly beautiful as the Barents Sea coastline where it is set, this parable inspired in part by the biblical tale of Job dumps more misfortune than one hapless man should ever have to endure. It’s no wonder he spends much of the time awash in vodka.
Played by Aleksey Serebryakov, an exceptional brooder and rager, auto mechanic Kolya lives in a fishing village with his teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and second, younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) on a windswept spot of land overlooking the sea, where the giant decaying skeleton of a whale on the beach offers an ominous harbinger of looming disaster. Corrupt, corpulent mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) has his eye on Kolya’s land for a development project, and tries to chisel him out of it. Kolya calls on Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), an old Army pal turned high-powered Moscow attorney, who winds up sleeping with Lilya.
“Everything is everyone’s fault,” he tells Lilya, which serves both as convenient excuse and allegorical attitude. As one man flailing ineffectively against an amoral system, Kolya spirals downward through one bad break after another until he finally gets framed for a heartbreaking crime.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who co-wrote the script with Oleg Negin, laces the tragic turns with streaks of dark humor. A beach outing includes a shooting contest for which the first targets are bottles; when those are gone, someone produces framed portraits of former Soviet leaders, including Brezhnev and Gorbachev — but not current Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose image hangs, unsullied, on the mayor’s office wall.
“Leviathan” is kicking up plenty of dust back home in Russia. Political leaders have decried its criticism of government and Orthodox priests are objecting to the portrayal of a cynical cleric.
The film was also inspired by an American story. In 2004 Marvin Heemeyer, a Colorado man incensed over a zoning dispute, outfitted a bulldozer with armor and used it to mow down a town hall and other buildings before killing himself. Zvyagintsev has said people he spoke with about the case viewed Heemeyer as something of a hero.
There are no heroes in “Leviathan,” only flawed humans — some a lot less lucky than others.