Lawrence Toppman

Movie review: ‘Leviathan’ stingingly indicts modern Russia

Angry teenager Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) contemplates the skeleton of a dead whale in his seaside Russian town in “Leviathan.”
Angry teenager Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) contemplates the skeleton of a dead whale in his seaside Russian town in “Leviathan.” SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

If Vladimir Putin wants to claim his government doesn’t completely censor culture in Russia, he can make “Leviathan” Exhibit A in his case. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev lacerates corrupt officials, complicit churchmen, stupid bureaucrats and bribed judges in his homeland, yet the cultural establishment submitted it for consideration for the 2015 Academy Awards.

Putin himself looks down in more than one scene from a framed photograph in the office of a vicious, alcoholic mayor. Russia’s president wears an amused but slightly surprised expression, as if to say, “These things shouldn’t surprise anyone. That’s how we do business in my regime!”

But events do surprise Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov), a handyman who lives in a waterfront house at the edge of a small city. (Zvyagintsev shot the movie in Murmansk Oblast, the northwesternmost part of Russia above the Arctic Circle.)

Nikolay learns the mayor (Roman Madyanov) chose his land to build a community center and has told town officials to condemn that house, paying a small fraction of its worth. Nikolay asks his pal Dmitriy, a Moscow lawyer who has faith in the system (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to help him in court. They soon realize the mayor would rather solve disputes with fists or firearms than writs.

Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, who co-wrote the script, don’t make this conflict simplistic. The volatile Nikolay hurts his cause (not that he’s likely to win it) by flying off the handle. He dominates his second wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who struggles with depression and a stepson who hates her. Dmitriy may be a crusader for justice, but he’s sleeping with Lilya in circumstances that endanger them both.

This and Zvyagintsev’s three previous films – “The Return,” “The Banishment” and the underrated “Elena” – consistently convey quiet menace, as characters likable and unlikable move inexorably toward suffering.

Perhaps that’s the filmmaker’s view of life in Russia: Dog eats dog, only to be eaten by a larger dog after barking too loudly. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman has shot all four, and he has a knack for contrasting the sometimes harsh beauty of nature with the drab life in cities, where people snap under pressure.

The title literally describes the skeleton of a whale that has washed up on Nikolay’s beach. It’s also an allusion to the Old Testament book of Job, which an orthodox priest misinterprets as the story of a man punished for failing to accept his proper place in life.

And maybe it refers to the current political system, which looks more and more repressive each year. (Nikolay watches a TV clip about Pussy Riot, the anti-Putin punk band whose members were imprisoned in 2012 for “hooliganism.”)

Is Zvyagintsev saying Putin and his ilk will wash up on the shores of history, no longer able to menace the Russian people and memorable only as a freakish corpse? Or is the dead whale just a whale? I suppose that depends on who’s asking the question, and I wonder how the director would respond.

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REVIEW

‘Leviathan’

A handyman gets entangled in the Russian legal system and tries to fight off a predatory public official with the help of an attorney. Disturbing and timely.

A STARS: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Roman Madyanov.

DIRECTOR: Andrey Zvyagintsev.

RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes.

RATING: R (language and some sexuality/graphic nudity).

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