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Movie review: ‘Leviathan’ a big Russian metaphor

Aleksey Serebryakov is Kolya, a handyman/mechanic who lives in a small coastal town in Russia, in “Leviathan.”
Aleksey Serebryakov is Kolya, a handyman/mechanic who lives in a small coastal town in Russia, in “Leviathan.” Sony Pictures Classics

Here it is, Mother Russia, in all its bloated, drunken, allegorical glory. “Leviathan” is a modern parable of an ancient state and caricatures and stereotypes as old as vodka itself.

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film is, like the corrupt politician and hapless proles depicted here, a Soviet-era throwback, a tale of people resigned to entropy, resigned to a naive belief in the authority of law and the state until they’re confronted with exactly who those laws and who that state are designed to serve.

Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a drunken blowhard living a modestly successful life in a town along the northern coast. He’s quick to anger, quicker with a dope slap to his rude teenage son. Lilya (Elena Lyadova), his second wife, endures the kid who hasn’t quite accepted her and keeps her mechanic and all-around handyman husband’s vodka glass full.

We meet Kolya picking up an old army buddy at the train station. Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) is now a lawyer in Moscow, a man with faith in the rule of law but savvy enough to know how things really work. Kolya, it turns out, needs a lawyer. The mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), has decided the city – or somebody – needs Kolya’s hilltop-with-ocean-view house. He may face re-election every few years, but the pugnacious Vadim is just an old school “apparatchik” – a functionary kept in place by the top-down oligarchy that replaced the Communist Party.

Vadim is used to getting his way, so it’s no shock that the ruling, rendered in court and delivered in a high-speed drone by a “judge,” goes against Kolya.

But Dmitri has an ace up his sleeve, “dirt” on the mayor that could finish him.

Zvyagintsev frames his story with seascapes, images that capture the decaying fishing boats and exposed whale bones of a world where so little changes that all the average Ivan can do is shrug, sit and drink himself into a stupor – nightly.

A “shooting” picnic with some Russian redneck friends adds to the portrait of life here, and to the tension. Zvyagintsev patiently builds a sense of dread, the fear of what all this thwarted hope, alcohol and firepower can lead to. Volatile people with high-velocity ammunition are a deadly combination.

Will the violence come when a drunken Vadim slurs insults at an equally drunk Kolya? Will there be some other accident or an incident to tip these teetering tightrope walkers into the abyss?

Vdovichenkov’s Dmitri is droll and bored, but still dogged enough about the system that he’s willing to jump through the hoops he figures will render justice. He’s like a Dostoevsky hero, the last one to get a clue.

The nervous, edgy Serebryakov keeps us on tenterhooks, never knowing what he might do next, how he could lash out.

But Lyadova creates a sad, lonely soul straight out of Chekhov, a beautiful woman in an ugly place, gutting fish for a living, trapped by circumstance, loyalty and love in a marriage that is its own dead end.

The politics are rarely overt. “Pussy Riot” stories pop up on TV, and the Orthodox Church’s role in the hierarchy (cozying up to power, serving as a calming “opiate” to the masses) is mocked. Zvyagintsev is a bit too willing, in this overlong film, to let the landscape, the remote setting and the insular world of crumbling apartment blocks, sagging houses, collapsing churches and grey skies shape the film’s message. The little people, with their little problems that become huge as they’re ground up in the maw of the beast? They drink because they know: “What else can I do?”

LEVIATHAN

Cast: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

140 minutes

Rated R (for language and some sexuality/graphic nudity)

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