Leviathan might be the most ironically beautiful film of the year. There’s barbed pain in its beauty—feelings of constriction and of deep, cosmic futility. The landscapes particularly affirm this sense of existential hopelessness. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman forge images that are always strikingly composed of a highly differentiated foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground will often feature snapshots of domestic life that are either set in a home or in exteriors of its surrounding village; the middle ground will elaborate on said domesticity with specifics such as cars, buildings, bookshelves, flowers, and lamps; and the background will often be composed of a natural landscape that’s visible from the vantage point of the foreground by virtue of a framing window or open door. Pivotally, all of the images’ planes are almost always in focus at once, which encourages an audience reaction that’s contemplative yet uneasy. The characters’ vulnerabilities, the inadequacy of their homes to offer protection (a recurring theme in Zvyagintsev’s work), is emphasized simultaneously along with the rapturous beauty of the textures that define this not-so-firma terra.
The story, small in scope, is a concentrated political chamber melodrama that’s reminiscent of the plot that drove Zvyagintsev’s previous film, Elena. Nikolay (Aleksei Serebryakov) is a struggling handyman at war with Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the mayor of a small Russian coastal town, over the impending seizure of the former’s land by the community to use as a site for a new public center. Nikolay recruits an old military buddy, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to serve as his counsel for a countersuit against the town for unfair real estate practices, but this is widely understood, especially by Zvyagintsev, to be a meaningless pretense for what is truly a glorified dispute with the mafia. Vadim is established, in terms that are eerily undefined, to be corrupt and capable of profound cruelties, and he’s also murkily in bed with the local church, which supports the seizure while offering pitiful platitudes to those who might be rendered homeless by the process. The game’s rigged, in other words, and Nikolay’s only hope is to play prison rules, which Dmitriy honors with dirt on Vadim that ultimately proves beside the point. Mixed up in all this is Nikolay’s very obviously bored and anguished wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who’s having an affair with the shifty, hypocritically self-righteous Dmitriy.
Remarkably, Leviathan is even bleaker than it sounds, and far less plot-driven (most of the above is established in the first 45 minutes). Telling, pointed references to the Book of Job and to figures such as Boris Yeltsin often brutally convey the director’s assertion that rampantly obvious government corruption leads to a profound dissolution of proletariat morale that basically equates to godlessness. God may or may not be up in the sky, but this unyielding misery is right here, in Nikolay’s home, as Vadim destroys him. Vadim likens Nikolay and his impoverished kind to insects, and he’s partially right, though he’s missing the obvious truth that we’re all insects, regarded by the great leviathans of creation and mystery with probable indifference. This is where those gorgeous, richly detailed landscapes reveal themselves to be more than the exertion of astonishingly careful craftsmanship; they are the less tangible complement to the literal leviathan, the great whale that occasionally shows itself, most notably in Lilya’s rapturous, heartbreakingly gorgeous, and ambiguous final scene. Zvyagintsev contrasts the grandiosity of his nature reveries with the smallness of the human drama; the community itself even appears to be squeezed into but a fraction of the world the director shows us, and everyone seems to be living on top of one another, equating their self-inflicted damage with God’s wrath.
Leviathan is an admittedly bitter brew, and Zvyagintsev’s specificity of vision can sometimes resemble a proof being tested, rather than a living, breathing drama unfolding in front of us. But the director’s cynicism isn’t comfortably settled in amber and offered up as absolute truth. Zvyagintsev never loses sight of the humans, who’re allowed to display improvisatory behavior that deepens the majesty of the rigorously orchestrated tableaus. The slowness of the film lowers the audience’s guard for moments so wrenching as to court profundity, such as a boozy, macho picnic that turns disastrous, or Lilya’s aforementioned moment with the leviathan, or a startling, show-stopping embrace between Nikolay and his disenfranchised son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). This is a big, bold, depressing movie, just in time for the holidays, but it affirms the sentiment that suggests that deep pain is an indication of an active, engaged, positively alive soul. Look to the landscape, for there’s hope in it.