Russian films tend to be somber, brooding affairs, but even by those uncompromising national standards, Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Leviathan" is serious business indeed.
Bleak and relentless as well as impeccably made, biblical in its name as well as its moral outrage at the powerlessness of the individual in the face of unchecked authority, "Leviathan" is dealing with nothing less than the current state of Russia's soul.
A companion piece to Chinese director Jia Zhangke's similarly anguished "A Touch of Sin," "Leviathan" (whose name also references Thomas Hobbes' treatise on the nature of state power) is the fourth film by top filmmaker Zvyagintsev, whose knockout 2003 debut was "The Return."
Working once again with gifted cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and co-writer Oleg Negin (their "Leviathan" script took home the best screenplay award at Cannes), Zvyagintsev conveys a sense of a society in decay and despair that borders on being too deterministic to watch.
What prevents that from happening is "Leviathan's" skill with character, the way its top-flight actors convincingly bring its despondent protagonists to life. Given to drinking themselves into stupors with machine-like regularity, these folks are not people we necessarily enjoy spending time with, but their inexorable fate does command our attention.
Set in Russia's far north, on a peninsula near the Barents Sea, "Leviathan's" action is so far from any metropolis that it's more like the actual end of nowhere than the middle of it.
We enter the story's action at a key point, as protagonist Kolia (Alexsey Serebryakov) drives to a distant train station to pick up his old army buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), making a visit from Moscow, where he is an successful lawyer, to help out his friend.
Kolia is a blustery, rugged individualist who runs a small auto repair business out of the house he shares with his younger second wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and the obstreperous teenage son he inherited from his first marriage, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). Prone to both violence and alcoholism, Kolia is not ordinarily the kind of person to need assistance of any kind.
But the well-situated land his house sits on has caught the eye of the town's bull-necked, venal, heavy-drinking Mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who wants it for purposes of his own and is in the process of forcing Kolia and his family out, much against their will. Which is where Dmitri comes in.
As a lawyer, Dmitri is fully aware that the town's legal system and all other forms of authority have been completely co-opted by the thuggish mayor. This is made clear in a scene in which a three-judge panel reads a preliminary verdict against Kolia in a double-time monotone that would sound like a joke if it weren't so serious.
Not exactly a paragon of virtue himself (no one in this film is), Dmitri has his own ideas of how to get Vadim's attention. As for the mayor, ruthless enough but hardly the sharpest knife in the drawer, he turns out to be getting realpolitik advice from a savvy local bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Part of "Leviathan's" plot involves the working out of this public dispute, a battle in which Kolia is more overmatched than he imagines. Not for nothing does a local priest say to him, quoting pointedly from the Book of Job, "Can you pull in leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down his tongue with a rope? ... Any hope of subduing him is false."
Intersecting this public drama is a personal one, as Kolia, Lilya, Roma and Dmitri interact with one another as well as the couple's friends in town.
"Leviathan's" most pointed set piece is (what else but) a drunken shooting party, far out in the country and attended by all the film's major players, where portraits of Lenin, Brezhnev and Gorbachev end up as targets. When the shooters lament the absence of anyone more current, they are told it's just a matter of time.
"Truth reflects the world as it really is," one of "Leviathan's" characters posits. "The essence of truth is to tell good from evil." By that standard, and others as well, this film appears to be right on target.
Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles