"Leviathan" closes as it opens: with a sequence of lingering shots of a rock-strewn, wave-pummelled peninsula in north-western Russia in a palette of thick greys and sickly yellows. In another film such deliberate symmetry might feel heavy-handed. But Andrey Zvyagintsev's 142-minute epic is sufficiently muscular—and leavened with touches of dark humour—to bear operatic flourishes. What begins as a David-and-Goliath fable of a small man taking on a corrupt politician soon stretches its jaws and bites into far bigger prey: the state, organised religion, God and the bleakness of life itself.
At the film's centre is Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov), a poor, vodka-sodden man eking out a living in an impoverished Russian fishing community. His son, Roma, is troubled and sullen; his beautiful second wife, Lila, is resented by her stepson and works a dismal job in a fish-processing plant. The family live in a humble, clapboard shack with a spectacular view of the town sitting on a fragile sliver of land. The venal local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), is in the process of forcibly purchasing this land and evicting its inhabitants. But Kolya doesn't intend to go without a fight. He has called in an old army buddy, the handsome Dimitri, who is now a smart city lawyer. When, in a tense court scene dominated by the judge's long, droning verdict, Kolya fails to gain a reprieve, Dimitri begins to apply pressure to Vadim directly, using dirt collected through back-channels in Moscow.
The title may be taken from the 1651 book by Hobbes, but the film is a twist on it: it is preoccupied by lives which are nasty, brutish and short, but lays the blame at the foot of the powerful state rather than the state of nature. It is as if the famous figure from the frontispiece of Hobbes' "Leviathan", a political creature made of its citizens, is dissolving into its constituent parts. The characters spend the majority of their time anaesthetising themselves with vast quantities of vodka and carrying out small acts of rebellion. Early on Kolya and Vadim, both plastered, staggeringly square up to each other. The next morning when Dimitri goes to file an official complaint on Kolya’s behalf he smacks into an impenetrable wall of official corruption and indifference.
On a hunting trip organised by a local traffic cop, the targets they shoot at are the bland official portraits of past Party leaders. The cop explains he has more recent ones—we’ve already seen a framed image of Putin in the mayor's office—but he is leaving them to "ripen". The openness of the criticism is surprising and brave: "Leviathan" is partially funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture. It also takes aim at the Orthodox Church: Vadim is friends with a sneering bishop who rubber-stamps the mayor's brutality with religious justifications.
"God is always watching," Vadim piously assures his son in the film’s closing scene. If he is, he remains unmoved by the plight of the men and women crushed by forces beyond their control.
Leviathan is in selected cinemas now, and available on demand