How on earth did Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” get made, let alone get tapped as its country’s official entry in the foreign-language Oscar race? Did anyone in charge even see this movie? Don’t they understand that its contempt for life in modern Russia is complete, that it tells a small story of corruption and loss so that it becomes a condemnation of an entire nation? If “Leviathan” takes the Academy Award on the 22nd — and it’s considered the front-runner by some — it’ll be a win for great filmmaking and a loss for the Putin government.
Unfolding in the far northwestern corner of the country, up by Finland, “Leviathan” follows the Job-like travails of local mechanic Nikolai, nicknamed Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov). He lives in a sprawling tidal-flat home that his fisherman ancestors built generations ago, on land that the town mayor, Vadim (Roman Madianov), has decided he wants for himself. Dubious legal maneuvers are employed to push Kolya out; Kolya, an ex-boxer and hothead, responds by calling up from Moscow Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), an old army buddy who’s now a slick lawyer.
The wild cards in this story line are Kolya’s young wife, Lilya (Elena Liadova), and Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), his thuggish teenage son by an earlier marriage; the two become catalysts, witnesses, victims. But there are more than enough victims to go around. “Leviathan” paints a careful, measured portrait of a society in which venality and vodka rule, where things fall apart not because that’s how life works but because people are stupid and petty and cruel.
As an audience, we’re instinctively drawn to the urbane Dmitri, the one person in this dark farce who seems to see the bigger picture. In an early meeting with the mayor, the lawyer reveals how much he knows about — and has proof of — the other man’s corruption, and the film delights in watching Vadim squirm, his piggish eyes widening at the realization that his power might have limits. (Zvyagintsev seems to have cast Madianov for his resemblance to a Thomas Nast cartoon.)
Lilya is drawn to Dmitri, too, and she becomes the film’s troubled soul. Liadova is a striking presence, very beautiful in a very quiet way, and as the only major female character in a movie about a neurotically macho society, Lilya sees plenty of things the others don’t. Yet she has her blind spots as well, and as the plot inexorably rolls forward over its characters, Lilya’s tragedy may haunt you more than the rest.
Zvyagintsev’s earlier films were more fable-like, if equally gripping: the patriarchal power plays of “The Return” (2003), the domestic crimes and punishments of “Elena” (2011). If that film felt at times like feminist Dostoevsky, “Leviathan” plays like downer Tolstoy, masterfully specific to these people and unforgivingly allegorical toward the country at large. A sequence in which a magistrate reads aloud the court’s decision on Kolya’s land is nearly comedy, the legalese spit out at a blinding clip, no chance for appeal. One guess as to which side the Russian Orthodox Church is on. On the mud flats lies the bleached skeleton of a whale — the beast of the title, shared with Thomas Hobbes’s 17th-century treatise on man, government, and social responsibility. (The reference alone seems to conjure up a hollow laugh in Zvyagintsev.)
How these characters feel about their own government can be summed up in the film’s most high-spirited scene, a picnic involving Kolya and Dmitri, some local cops, many bottles of vodka, a shooting gallery of framed Soviet portraits — Brezhnev, Andropov, the whole gang — and some leftover subautomatic weapons. This is Russia, says the film: a drunken mob assassinating its past, as well as any lessons learned from it. Of course a Russian Orthodox blogger has called “Leviathan” a “filthy libel”; of course the country’s Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, detests the movie and has called for new state guidelines to ban films that “defile” Russia and her culture. Actually, that may be the best way to praise Zvyagintsev’s achievement. “Leviathan” is a magnificent defilement, a movie that takes down what it loves with mournful outrage and novelistic sweep.