Andrei Zvyagintsev's "Leviathan" is a film of ideas. The title alone works on two levels, borrowed from Thomas Hobbes' 17th-century treatise of the same name that argues for sovereign rule to avoid an anarchist society, and at the same time alluding to a biblical sea monster churning the waters of Chaos. Although the most accessible of the director's four features, the drama sometimes waivers between pretension and profundity -- at best recalling the Russian art cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky ("Ivan's Childhood") and Aleksandr Sokurov ("Mother and Son").
But this film of ideas took courage to make.
The narrative, co-written by Oleg Negin who also collaborated with Zvyagintsev on "The Banishment" and "Elena," begins with a simple premise: Auto-repair shop owner Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) must fight to keep his home and land from being seized by the crooked mayor (Roman Madyanov) of a remote fishing village near the Barents Sea in northern Russia. The tension escalates between the working-class citizen and iron-fisted government in this thinly veiled political parable criticizing Vladimir Putin's regime. Like the waves repeatedly crashing against the rocks, the volatile Kolya slams against a corrupt, powerful system bent on crushing any opposition.
Winner of Best Screenplay at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, "Leviathan" offers more levels of interpretation as the story unspools. Kolya and his former military buddy Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a hotshot Moscow lawyer, try to blackmail the mayor after exhausting attempts to work through the legal system. At the same time, tempers flare at home, where Kolya's unhappy second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his teenage son from his first marriage (Sergey Pokhodaev) complicate matters. When a local priest enters the picture and warns against kicking up God's anger, the Orthodox Church also comes under Zvyagintsev's fire. Each character makes self-serving choices that develop the concept of Hobbes' social contract and raise moral questions.
And, yes, loaded guns are introduced in the first act, reminding the viewer of Anton Chekhov's dramatic principle that the seemingly insignificant object must be fired at some point. A light-hearted, vodka-fueled picnic that starts out with Kolya and his friends (Aleksey Rozin and Anna Ukolova) target shooting at portraits of former Russian leaders soon reveals a tangled web of secrets and lies. The film's humor helps keep the portentousness in check, particularly as Kolya's losses mount and he begins to resemble a present-day Job tested by God.
Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman's stunning images complement the narrative. The cool gray dawns and barren landscapes express Kolya's despair and isolation. The bones of a dead whale on the beach counterpoint the live whale roiling the waters while Lilya contemplatively watches. These leviathans, dead and alive, take on another form as a monstrous machine with a destructive claw threatens to demolish the home that Kolya has loved all his life.
When the priest quotes a passage from the Book of Job -- "Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?" -- Kolya swears at him for talking in riddles. For some viewers, the enigmatic, slow-paced film may elicit the same reaction. Others will revel in its depths.
Rated R for language and some sexuality/graphic nudity. Two hours, 20 minutes.