We posted a first round of reviews of Andrei Zvyagintsev‘s Leviathan when it premiered in Cannes and went on to win the best screenplay award. Now that Russia’s horse in the foreign language Oscar race is opening in the UK (it’s also screened at festivals in Toronto and New Zealand and will screen at AFI Fest this evening and on Sunday), it’s high time for a second round.
“Leviathan starts as a story about political corruption in a Northern Russian town before eventually extending into a full-blown reimagining of the Book of Job, which might make you think that it’s harkening back to the original notion of its eponymous monster,” writes Tomas Hachard at the House Next Door. “Zvyagintsev’s intents, however, are more difficult to ascertain. As the film’s scope expands, the meaning of Leviathan in the film becomes a moving target, the ultimate joke being on those who think any single interpretation is the final and correct one.”
“It’s a savagely powerful movie, set on a cold-comfort coast near Murmansk where Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov) runs a car repair shop when not running justice-seeking errands to town, where the mayor (Roman Maydanov) schemes to seize his family land,” explains Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times. “This—we learn in dialogue scenes almost Ibsenite in their throttled-rage conjurations of a betrayed past—is more than land. It is birthright; belonging; selfhood.”
The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw: “Zvyagintsev combines an Old Testament fable with something like Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice; it also has something of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront or Robert Rossen’s municipal graft classic All the King’s Men…. Stunningly shot and superbly acted, especially by Madyanov, this is filmmaking on a grand scale.”
But Blake Williams, writing for Cinema Scope, is having none of it. “The film itself isn’t so much dumb as it is an overly affected chore,” a “Philip Glass-scored critique of Putin-era Russia. Awash with very, very meaningful images of the remains of colossal marine creatures, a sky always silvered in blue greys, and a portly mayor…, Leviathan is immediately suffocated by the portentous weight of Zvyagintsev’s commitment to Serious Cinema. (Allegedly a satire, this film is not the least bit funny.) By the time the narrative graciously winds down, Glass’s score rises back to the fore, and you’re encouraged to wonder if you saw something more profound than you think you did.”
At the Arts Desk, Tom Birchenough argues that some of the humor gets lost in translation—and he offers a couple of examples. Further in: “The waves of despair here run deep…; the tragedy here is exactly that everyday life will continue somehow, its power structures buttressed, at least for the moment. It’s the individuals who come to tragic ends…. Leviathan is rinsed in the brine of Dostoyevsky.”
Jacob Powell for the Lumière Reader: “Compared with his debut The Return, the Russian director’s most recent feature is more narratively dense and not as formally tight, yet with its sprawling scope and occasionally scenery chewing characters—guns and alcohol anybody?—Leviathan finds a rhythm which works to deliver its heavy thematic load with a certain lyricism.”
“Like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, characters nestle in vast landscapes, taking their time to get from one side of the frame to the other,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman in Little White Lies. “Zvyagintsev is a precision-master of composition. Whether putting together a montage of breathtaking natural curios or tracking characters in the quiet drives between confrontations, the feeling is always that—as we wrote about David Fincher, he ‘holds his characters at arm’s length—perhaps all the better to see them in their entirety.'”
Leviathan “hardly shines a positive light on the current regime, though it does showcase the uniquely beautiful peninsula near the Barents Sea,” writes Michael Nordine for the LA Weekly. The film’s “an affecting reminder that politics is always personal no matter what country you’re in.”
Shaun Walker‘s met up with Zvyagintsev: “An expression of faint alarm greets me as I’m introduced as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent. ‘Oh, so you mainly write about politics?’ he asks, somewhat nervously. But as soon as we start to speak, it’s as if a dam has broken. Carefully measured allegory is swapped for blunt straight-talking.”
Update, 11/9: The Observer‘s Mark Kermode: “‘A story of love and tragedy experienced by ordinary people’ is how producer Alexander Rodnyansky characterizes this fearsomely believable tale of lives crushed and torn apart by bloated authority—as vast, empty and lifeless as the enigmatic whalebones that adorn the beach. As with its various sources (biblical, literary, political), this is a tale of the epic and the everyday, of big themes and little people—’insects’ to the likes of Vadim and his unholy flock.”
Update, 12/9: “Despite the official endorsements, Zvyagintsev makes no secret of the difficulties of working in Russia’s increasingly reactionary and restrictive political environment,” reports Stephen Ennis for the BBC.
Update, 12/14: “Leviathan is an admittedly bitter brew, and Zvyagintsev’s specificity of vision can sometimes resemble a proof being tested, rather than a living, breathing drama unfolding in front of us,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. “But the director’s cynicism isn’t comfortably settled in amber and offered up as absolute truth. Zvyagintsev never loses sight of the humans, who’re allowed to display improvisatory behavior that deepens the majesty of the rigorously orchestrated tableaus.”
Updates, 12/27: First up, here’s what Serge Levchin is up to at RogerEbert.com: “Given the resounding success of Zvyagintsev’s daring amalgamation of current events and Biblical parable, I wanted to look closely at the way the film’s constituent parts function together, and also to examine briefly its immediate socio-political context, which may not be readily accessible to audiences outside of Russia.”
“Where Elena dissected Russia’s particularly extreme economic chasm between the rich and poor, implicitly sounding a warning over the anger and hostility that must ensue, Leviathan is a remarkably direct broadside against the collusion of the Russian Orthodox Church and a government corrupt on pretty much every conceivable level,” writes Vadim Rizov, introducing his interview with Zvyagintsev for Filmmaker.
In the New York Times, Larry Rohter also talks with Zvyagintsev, who, in the opinion of Manohla Dargis, “has a heavenly eye but a leaden hand, and his movie is as heavy as it is transporting, filled with stirring shots of the natural world and deep dives into a human realm flooded with tears and vodka…. Despite flashes of absurdist comedy from some secondary characters, the movie closes around you like the fist it protests and laments.”
“Leviathan is easily the most important and imposing film to emerge from Russia in recent years,” argues Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com. “Ultimately Leviathan may divide viewers between those who find its possible meanings too numerous and inchoate and others who welcome the challenges of helping create its meaning…. [T]he film’s ambitions are so grand and multi-dimensional, and mostly accomplished, that Zvyagintsev’s audacity can only be applauded. His is a career that now must be counted one of the most significant in contemporary cinema.”
“The film is riveting, visually and dramatically,” writes Masha Gessen for the New York Review of Books. “It is also precise about Russia: the corruption, inequality, and ultimate hopelessness that drive the plot of Leviathan are becoming only more evident and pronounced in the current meltdown of the economy…. Few Russians have seen Leviathan. Postponed at least twice, it is now slated to open in Russia in February, but with an entirely new soundtrack, cleaned up of all obscenities to comply with the country’s newly puritanical laws (which ban use of obscene language in any media, including products intended for adults only).”
Elina Mishuris for the L: “The English subtitles can’t do the cursing justice; this is discourse so deeply brutal even a casual remark stings like—forgive me—vodka in the wound.”
“State, church, greed, bullying, booze, anger, human weakness and folly all collude in feeding the monster,” writes Michael Wood in the London Review of Books. “‘Remember the battle, do no more,’ is what Job is told. But in this film there really is no battle. Just a sinister, sometimes comic conspiracy of disorderly intentions, and an unforgettable portrait of wreckage.”
Mike D’Angelo at the AV Club: “In his three previous films, Zvyagintsev frequently pushed past sober into dour, leaning too heavily on a characteristically Soviet sense of gloom and doom. (See also: Alexander Sokurov, Nikita Mikhalkov, Pavel Lungin. Is there a modern-day Chekhov in the country somewhere?) Leviathan is another downer, but it’s considerably looser and livelier than its predecessors, verging at times on black comedy.”
“Though moments of gallows humor bring some levity to the occasion, Leviathan stages a grim pas de deux between intimate scenes in Kolya’s crumbling inner circle and distant exteriors of the seaside surroundings, which swallow up all the heat,” writes Scott Tobias at the Dissolve. “Leviathan itself feels like a brave, lonely act of rebellion against the system, deeply pessimistic about the possibility of it ever working in the people’s favor.”
For the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek, “the heart and soul of Leviathan is Serebriakov’s Kolya, who carries deep sorrow in his eyes and on his shoulders, even as he fends off defeat for longer than you’d imagine possible.”
The “first half expresses a blunt anger about Russian politicians’ abuse of power, as well as their hypocrisy in embracing an Orthodox Church to whose values they merely pay lip service,” writes Steve Erickson for Gay City News. “In its second half, the film shows how the flaws of human nature make it so hard to fight effectively against the injustices it depicts. The two portions of the film, however, never really come together, even if its opening and closing shots of demolished boats and animal carcasses in and alongside water rhyme with each other. It piles on the bleakness to numbing effect.”
Update, 12/30: “The best one-liner in Leviathan comes in the opening credits,” finds the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane. “‘With support from the Russian Ministry of Culture.’ Reportedly, as much as 35 percent of the budget was supplied by government funding. This is like Kazakhstan using oil revenues to pay for Borat…. There must be thousands of stories like Kolya’s right now, lives folding and collapsing, upon which Zvyagintsev could cast his unfoolable eye. Despite that, he is not primarily a satirist, or even a social commentator; he is the calm surveyor of a fallen world, and Leviathan, for all its venom, never writhes out of control.”
Updates, 1/5: “It’s a critique of abuse of power, while also ultimately and inevitably a capitulation to that power,” writes Eric Hynes at Reverse Shot. “We’re left with the sense that no matter how unjust certain actions and situations may be, they can only be endured. The picture painted may be ugly, and it may be angry, but it’s not a call to arms; it’s the humbled Job that we turn to here, not the agitating Christ.” Leviathan‘s “peerless craftwork can make things feel a bit locked-off and overdetermined… but it also serves the film’s greater pessimism. The gears turn, the men drink, and the days end. And most crucially, such airlessness is counteracted by the performers, who stir scenes away from being strictly allegorical, and who complicate Zvyagintsev’s exquisite frames by imbuing them with fitful life.”
Stuart Klawans in the Nation: “Leviathan is a big film—long, sprawling, somewhat ungainly, but justifiably sure of its power. It has pity for Nikolay, Lilya and Roma; but it smashes them and their little shelter even so, and in the space that’s been cleared erects an unholy new alliance of state and church, because that’s how things are.”
Jonathan Romney for Film Comment: “We should welcome Leviathan’s pessimism: it’s cause for celebration that Zvyagintsev has managed to make a feature this politically provocative and this artistically eloquent. One of the outstanding films of 2014, Leviathan lives up to its title: it’s a behemoth of intelligent contemporary cinema.”
“Part of the grip the movie asserts springs from the simplicity of the premise, a classic man-versus-system duel that, though entrenched in a rich sociopolitical dimension, easily translates to a universal anxiety,” writes Luke Goodsell at Movie Mezzanine.
Matt Prigge talks with Zvyagintsev for Metro.
Update, 1/11: For Newcity‘s Ray Pride, Leviathan may be “the year’s most accomplished black comedy.”