Leviathan is Russia’s official entry in the foreign language category in this years Academy Awards, and it’s currently one of the favourites to steal the show – maybe side by side with the contender from Poland, Ida. The reason this is important to note when talking about Leviathan should be obvious, as the political climate in Russia is as controversial as it’s always been.
I don’t care for talent shows at all, but when both Russia and Ukraine sent representatives to the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014, I couldn’t stay away. As we all know, the geopolitical issues between these two countries reached an all-time-high last year and it’s inherently complex – so much so that it’s difficult to really talk about with any confidence or certitude, and I will not claim any ability to do so. However, it’s not difficult to pinpoint the problematic nature of a movie that is funded by the Ministry of Culture in Russia, and then chosen to represent said country in a prestigious and global event, such as The Academy Awards. For these reasons, I’m still in awe and shock when I say; Leviathan is not only a masterfully executed personal story about family, but transcends this and becomes a highly critical examination of Russia’s political history, and the contemporary political scene in the country.
The movie opens with brute force, as cinematographer, Mikhail Krichman, captures the relentlessness of nature with a grandiose camera lens. Accompanying these images is Peter Glass’s Akhnaten; a orchestral piece I had only listened to before, but never understood. Having read up on it now, it complements the title of the movie perfectly, as well as the more obtuse thematics of the narrative, which only reveals itself wholeheartedly in the last act. This revelation is gut-wrenching and manages to give new and deep-rooted meaning to the entirety of the movie. It’s more than a personal story of a man and his struggle to keep his family together in a chaotic world. It’s more than hard hitting political criticism. I will not say too much about the final piece of the trifecta, as it’s best experienced by yourself, and maybe you’ll come away from it with a completely different interpretation than me.
Director, Andrey Zvyaginstev, has quite a few movies tied to his name – I’ve only seen Elena – but uses symbolism very well. It’s not a spoiler to say Leviathan relies heavily on biblical symbolism, but unlike with Elena, it never feels forced. He manages to hide it in dialogue and narrative threads, but there’s also small details in the production design to keep your brain active and interested. The most obvious is of course the skeleton of a beached whale, but Mr. Zvyaginstev keeps his cards close to his chest for the most part. I really love how the potential demolition of his family house is used to showcase – and reveal – certain elements of his closest relationships. As the seemingly inevitable demolition-day comes closer, so does his family unravel around him, and the movie leaves us with a few images so beautifully shot and captured, that it’s difficult to argue against the praise it has received already.