Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Leviathan": Russia Takes A Self-Inflicted Hit

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Leviathan is a Russian-made film that is unapologetically critical of the Russian government.  What is perhaps more astounding than the fact that this film was produced, finished and distributed in light of Russia’s strict control of its own media is that it was Russia’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, for which it was subsequently nominated.  More curious is the fact that this film has spawned proposals from Russian officials calling for stricter film production guidelines to prevent denigration of Russian culture.  All of this real world controversy is indicative of just how powerful Leviathan turned out to be, and it is a damn powerful film at that.

Kolya is a man with a house by the sea, and the local mayor decides to use the Russian equivalent of eminent domain to take possession of the property, not because he wishes to use the land for any government purposes, but merely out of self-interest and greed.  The film begins with Kolya’s fight against the governmental taking, which becomes tied in bureaucracy and hypocrisy as courts rattle off extensive legalize and the mayor drunkenly flaunts his power in spite of the government’s formalities.

Eventually, a settlement seems to be reached in light of some of the mayor’s indiscretions, and the film seems to reach a degree of resolution somewhere around the half-way mark.  Of course, the film does not end here, and I do not wish to spoil this for anyone, so I will neglect to point to specifics from here on out.  However, what the film does masterfully is build a hidden plot into the background of what is shown to us for the latter half of the film.  It is almost as if director Andrey Zvyagintsev is daring his audience to imagine what isn’t being shown on film, because that is where the real story is.  And this reflects the reality of Russian life, under the watchful eyes of a government that operates outside the knowledge of its people.

There is another edge to how this narrative sword cuts, however, as it only really works in retrospect.  The latter half of the film is populated with scenes of Kolya’s family and neighbors, which after a while begin to lose their potency due to an increasing lack of context to the greater narrative.  The pieces all fall into place during the third act, but in the meantime a very personal struggle develops that, while intriguing, doesn’t seem to tie into the larger narrative until much later on.  This isn’t the worst sin a film can have though, so I really only say this as advice to stay with the film until the end rather than as a whole-hearted critique.

At one point in the film, an allusion is made to the Biblical story of Job, where God tested Job’s faith through making him suffer hardship after hardship.  Kolya is thus compared to Job, but his God is not the god of the Russian Orthodox Church or of any religious affiliation; rather, his God is the Russian government, and his rewards for standing up for himself come in the form of further pain and suffering.  He is not a heroic man or even a particularly likeable one, but he is a simple man with the might of a world power threatening everything he has ever known, owned, and loved.  He is just an average Russian man, and that’s ultimately the point.  This is cinematic political commentary done right, and it is well worth seeing.  Find a copy near you.

What films do you think are the best examples of political commentary?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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