Friday, February 20, 2015
Leviathan is a big story about small people in a small community, and the forces that overwhelm them. There's a powerful sense of inevitability as a family fights the purchase of its land by the town mayor, whose counter-measures expose his true ruthlessness. Andrey Zvyagintsev's story, among many other accomplishments, vividly realizes its setting (the small coastal town Pribrezhny), to the point where you can practically smell the sea air, and taste the vodka enjoyed liberally by nearly every character. But as powerfully as it indicts the Russian regime, there's a pointed universality to its portrait of small-minded politicians drunk on power, and the ultimate helplessness of those who cross them. (I mused that an American remake could very easily transport the story to the Bible Belt with minimal changes, considering the prevalence of places where booze, corruption, and firearms all figure in the local culture; I was unsurprised to ultimately find that it was an incident in Colorado that inspired Zvyagintsev's story in the first place.)
The furor surrounding the movie in its native Russia is ironic. The movie unflinchingly ties the small-town corruption it depicts into Vladimir Putin's reign; indeed, Putin himself is present in the form of a hilariously what-me-worry? portrait on the wall of the corrupt mayor. But to bill the movie as "the film Putin doesn't want you to see" is something of an exaggeration. As potent as the movie is, Zvyagintsev claims he never once felt the hand of the state try and stop him, or shape the movie's contents. And even though the state has a strong presence (in the form of Putin ally Nikita Mikhalkov) on the country's Oscar selection board, this scathing movie was the one it submitted for consideration. The Russian government, after all, has declared war on corruption, just as Zvyagintsev has in his remarkable movie, so it's funny that they're at such cross-purposes.
Leviathan comes by its plaudits and awards honestly. Hard to say if an Oscar win would mean this movie's being recognized on its own merits or simply the Academy trying to tweak the Putin regime. Regardless of Sunday's outcome, Leviathan is grim but gorgeously executed, capturing the thorny, anti-humane politics of its homeland and transmuting them into a warning that is intensely felt, bracing in its expression, and universal in its breadth.