"Hard on the land wears the strong sea / and empty grows every bed." It's hard not to think of those lines from John Berryman's "Dream Song 1" while watching the fourth feature directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Elena). Leviathan won the best screenplay prize at Cannes and, astoundingly, was selected as Russia's official entry in the foreign-language Oscar race (by whom, one wonders — and has anyone seen him or her lately?). It's set in a crumbling fishing village north of the Arctic Circle.
The film opens and closes with montages of the gunmetal surf, pummeled cliffs and carcasses of wooden boats half-swallowed by the muddy tidal floor. Beside the shore, the giant skeleton of a whale sleeps among them. The place is barren, almost prehistoric. It's also the ancestral home of a mechanic by the name of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov). He owns a ramshackle place that he shares with his wife and son. He's lived there all his life, as did his father and grandfather before him.
It's not much, but that doesn't mean the mayor (Roman Madyanov) doesn't want to take it from Kolya. The bloated, vodka-swilling bureaucrat behaves as though he's watched Scarface too many times, blathering about tearing the home down and building a complex to invigorate the local economy. But one gets the impression he wants the waterfront property for himself. The picture's theme — and the reason its very existence is mystifying — is that life under Putin's regime is a Kafkaesque nightmare. The legal system is a joke — and, as Kolya learns when he goes up against it, the joke is on him.
He enlists the aid of an army buddy who's become a Moscow attorney. Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) is educated and urbane. He knows the score, and briefly, it looks like there might be hope for Kolya. But then Zvyagintsev stages one of the most darkly comic courtroom scenes in movie history. While Kolya and Dmitriy look on, a magistrate speed-reads the court's ruling. The legalese flies faster than the disclaimer at the end of a car commercial, and when it's finished, it's clear that Kolya is, too.
But his friend has one last ace up his sleeve. Dmitriy has assembled a dossier on the mayor, and the greedy toad actually squirms when he reads the dirt that's been dug up. Just when the mayor is about to back down, however, he's read the riot act by, of all people, the local leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Meddling outsiders, the churchman warns, need to be dealt with as a lesson to the public.
You literally can't fight city hall, as Kolya and everyone around him learn the hard way. Innocent people pay an unspeakable price for trying. Friendships are tested to their breaking point. And more than one bed grows empty in the most tragic fashion imaginable. While his world collapses around him, Kolya buys bottle after bottle of vodka and absorbs hit after hit from a system even he understands is incurably corrupt.
Toward the end, Serebryakov reminded me of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull at the point when he's a bloody pulp in boxer shorts, taking blow after blow just to prove he can. But still standing.
Leviathan is about standing up, even when it's pointless. At least I believe that's what Zvyagintsev and cowriter Oleg Negin are getting at in this brutal, beautiful film, which Russia's culture minister has publicly attacked as "defiling" the nation. And good for them. Somehow they made their point and got away with it.