Award-winning Russian director Andrey Zvagaintsev’s new epic movie opens to the dramatic tones of a Phillip Glass prelude as the camera scans over the desolate sight of a remote small fishing community that looks like it may have seen better times. It is on the Kola Peninsula in northern Russia and its almost deserted coastline is littered with discarded wrecks of boats and the carcasses of whales. One of the last residents is Kolya an ex fisherman now eking out a bare living as a motor mechanic with his pretty younger second wife and his teenage son in a riverside property that the crooked local mayor wants to seize from him in order to construct a new major development.
Kolya is no easy pushover however and enlists the help of Dimitri his ex-army buddy who is now a lawyer in Moscow. The two of them put up a brave fight but they stand no real chance of winning when they find out that everyone in authority in the town is clearly on the mayor’s ‘payroll’, including the local police force and the repugnant Orthodox Christian clergy. Dimitri however has an ace up his sleeve as he possesses a detailed File of evidence about the Mayor’s corruption that could be his undoing, but playing this hand could also backfire as it is clear that the Mayor will stop at absolutely nothing to continue to fill his pockets and increase his power.
Nothing quite pans out in this drama as one would expect, and what seems to start out as political satire on the inbred Russian system of corruption turns into a murder mystery with more than the occasional masterly touches of some brilliant black humor. Zvagaintsev’s passionate portrait is of a culture where the benefits of a contemporary society are still restricted to a privileged few, whilst most of the local population’s lives are firmly stuck in a past which they have no way or means of escaping. The despair and hopelessness seems even more pronounced with such stunning dramatic cinematography that focuses on the cold steel blue of the oft-barren landscape.
The ‘leviathan’ large sea monster that writer/director Zvyagintsev refers too here is metaphorical but the epic struggle that the likes of Kolya must deal with in this very loose retelling of the Book of Job, is not with his faith in God but with the unwieldy and unforgiving Russian state.
It is an extraordinary near perfect masterpiece of storytelling that keeps one on the edge of the seat for the lengthy 142 minutes, and it is very clear to see why it is swooping up Best Picture Awards all over the place, and is on the shortlist for an Academy Award too.