Andrei Zvagintsev’s Leviathan  is a sober and compelling tragic drama of corruption and intimidation in contemporary Russia , set in a desolate widescreen panorama. This is a movie which seems to be influenced by the Old Testament and Elia Kazan; it starts off looking like a reasonably scaled drama about a little guy taking on big government. Then it escalates to a new plane in which man is taking on the biggest, cruellest, and most implacable government of all, and the final sequence of devastation must surely be influenced by the final moments of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.
It is acted and directed with unflinching ambition, moving with deliberative slowness, periodically accelerating at moments of high drama and suspense. It isn’t afraid of massive symbolic moments and operatic gestures; I was fractionally sceptical about these at the time, but they live and throb in my head hours after the final credit-crawl. Leviathan incidentally features a horribly watchable performance from Roman Madyanov as a crooked mayor who resembles a hideous reincarnation of Broderick Crawford in the 1949 municipal graft classic All The King’s Men — with a hint of Boris Yeltsin. I hadn’t heard of this 51-year-old Russian performer before now. His excellent performance makes me think it’s a pity Cannes doesn’t have a best supporting actor prize.
The film’s hero is Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov), a car mechanic with a beautiful second wife Lilya (Elena Liadova), and a teenage son Roma (Sergei Pokhodaev) from his first marriage. It is his fortune or misfortune to have a modest family-built property on prime real estate: a beautiful spot on the waterfront in the lapland wilderness of north-western Russia. Now a crooked mayor Vadim (Madyanov) wants this land to build his own gruesome luxury dacha, and slaps the Russian equivalent of a Compulsory Purchase Order on Kolia: he gets this precious land for a derisory sum. But Kolia calls on the help of his old army buddy Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) who is now a slick lawyer in Moscow and he has arrived in this remote region with a file full of incriminating evidence on Vadim which he promises his old comrade will induce Vadim to back off. But it soon becomes clear that getting the old homestead back isn’t precisely what Dimitri has in mind. And his motives for helping aren’t what they first appear.
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