Tuesday 7 April 2015

Leviathan (2015) - Movie Review

Looks like Oscar season isn’t quite over yet, and not only that but today’s entry also finds me journeying further out of my comfort zone with my first experience of Russian cinema. Add to that the heavy political and religious subtext and this is starting to feel like karma for being happy that these films were behind me for the time being… so much for that. Looks like the idea is paying off too because, not long after the mindfragging experience of Chappie, I find myself once again stuck trying to figure out what exactly I think of the movie. More specifically, whether I think it’s any good or not. So, with no prior knowledge about the Russian socio-political climate and equal lack of insight into the norms of Russian cinema, bear with me as I put my scalpel to this alien of a movie.

The plot: Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov) and his family are under threat of having their house repossessed and demolished by the greedy town mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) and even with the help of his old friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) as their lawyer, it doesn’t look good. As events continue to unfold and more tragedy comes his way, Kolya starts to question why it’s happening to him of all people.

I’ve mentioned before how I feel about the more depressing and bleak side of cinema, and how I’m more than fine with it so long as it serves a genuine purpose. Well, seeing as how this is largely inspired by the biblical story of Job, this isn’t going to be all that cheery either. To be perfectly frank, the Book of Job is one of the core reasons I hold absolutely no stake in the Bible and vehemently question why some people follow it as to-the-letter as they do; even more so than the stories of Noah and the Egyptian Plagues, Job shows God (as depicted in the Bible) at his most sadistic and, weirdly, his most human. It’s a story of God grinding a man into the dirt to prove his fidelity, all because Satan got under his skin. I made mention of God’s connection with Man while trying to wade through the pool of weird that was Chappie, and Job shows how alike he is to us a little too well. Now, if this were simply a reworking of that story, then I have to admit that I would probably hate this film purely on principle. However, there is something a bit more complex at work here.

When the film starts out, it genuinely surprised me how familiar the story felt despite how unfamiliar both the setting and the cinematic stylings were initially. Here in Australia, we have a certain fixation of stories of forcible evictions by bigwig businessmen/political powers; it was especially prevalent in the 80’s, with The Castle, The Henderson Kids and even the first season of Round The Twist having story lines involving such things. However, that feeling of familiarity quickly morphed into something a lot darker and a lot more barbed: Political protest. Criticism of government isn’t taken kindly in Russia, to put it sickeningly mildly, but this film manages to say an awful lot without being overt about it. Or, to be accurate, without directly involving Vladimir Putin in any of it. There’s a rather humorous picnic scene where Kolya and some of his friends are setting targets for shooting practice; said targets turn out to be portraits of former Russian leaders like Lenin, without the inclusion of anyone more recent because it’s “too soon”. Ballsy and commendable move there, Zvyagintsev.

Actually, that entire picnic scene makes for the brightest part of the movie, as it is the point where the bleakness is the least prevalent and allows for some genuinely humane moments to contrast everything else involved. However, it seems that government office isn’t the only point of contention, as there are quite a few shots fired at the Russian religious system as well. Going back to the story of Job, the roles of Satan and God, at least in their positions of pulling the world’s strings to cause everything that happens to the main character, are represented here by the exceptional vile Vadim and the town priest respectively, with their decisions leading to the majority of the misfortune that befalls not only Kolya but those close to him as well. The priest also wins serious points for being one of the few people who have managed to spout the usual malarkey of “The Lord works in mysterious ways” and not make me want to break everything in sight; then again, it is said with copious amounts of irony, so that might be it.

Misfortune is probably the most apt word to describe this film and its main purpose: Portray what is wrong with Russian society and what it is doing to the people in it. It feels very reminiscent of 1984 in its themes of government suppressing free will and controlling everything in daily life. Throughout the film, the characters involved are generally seen as being quite miserable and trying whatever they can to cope with their surroundings, be it chugging vodka like its non-alcoholic lookalike, taking several smoking breaks every hour or by indulging in some extra-marital affairs. Kolya shows several times that he is even less capable of coping with his situation than others, be it because of the whole Arthur Dent thing or otherwise, and while his actions should cement him as a monster in the audience’s eyes, his circumstances make it kind of impossible to do that.

Actually, his circumstances are just that bad that I would argue that this story is even more hopeless than that of Job, as at least Job was rewarded for his trials at the end. With how Kolya’s arc ends, it gives the impression that the director not only believes that the motherland is destroying its own people, but what’s even worse is that the people themselves are powerless to stop it. Well… maybe not entirely helpless; there are an awful lot of scenes involving Kolya’s son Roma drinking with his friends in the ruins of a church. Maybe his generation will finally be the one to set things right, drinking away their troubles for good in the ruins of what once ruled over them with iron-clad hands.

And yet, even with all of this in mind, this movie didn’t sit that well with me overall. It has all the makings of a seriously great movie as the critics and the Academy have billed it as being, but two big things hinder my appreciation for this work: The pacing and the emotional connection. On the first point, the pacing is a little too slow for my tastes, making a lot of use of long shots to set the tone. They admittedly do a good job at this, particularly with the bookmarking courtroom scenes, but the brain-numbingly long zoom-in that starts out the first of these scenes had me so close to nodding off with how basic it was. On the second point, it’s more a side-effect of the setting and tone than anything else; when the film actively sets up horrible things to happen en masse to the characters, you start to go numb to it all after a while because you keep expecting it at every turn. It gets a bit draining before too long and this is the primary reason why the aforementioned picnic scene is my favourite part of the entire movie: It has dark undercurrents to it most certainly, but the deceptively warm tone actually made the political commentary contained within have more effect than in other scenes, at least subjectively.

All in all, this is an impeccably made film with a great cast and heavily critical and politically brave writing. This should be alongside films like 20,000 Days On Earth in the running for my favourite films of all time, but for some reason the pacing and overall feeling of the work detract from that want a little too much; if it was a bit brisker and focused a bit less on extended camera takes, then I would have liked this a lot more. Normally, I would classify this as a one-and-done, as this isn’t necessarily something I plan on revisiting anytime soon, but the fact remains that my opinion of it seems to be getting more and more favourable the more I dwell on it, so I might end up doing just that at some point. I still highly recommend seeing this movie at least once despite my misgivings, if for nothing more than to form your own opinions about it.

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