The term “Leviathan” is used in the Old Testament to refer to a large sea creature; the word has been used to refer to Satan as well. Leviathan is now also the name of an acclaimed film out of Russia that’s a modern retelling of the Book of Job. It’s no surprise that a packed crowed showed up on Saturday, Jan. 3, to see it at the Camelot Theatres as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Leviathan begins on a peninsula near the Barents Sea. Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov) is driving to a train station to meet his friend, Dmitry (Vladimir Vdovichenkov). Dmitry is Nikolay’s old Army buddy, and he’s come from Moscow to act as Nikolay’s attorney. Nikolay’s wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his teenage son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), have a troubled relationship, and there’s also tension with Nikolay, given their situation: Nikolay’s home is in danger of being taken by the town’s corrupt mayor, so a communication center can be built.
Dmitry reveals that he has information on the mayor that he believes will help save the home. However, Nikolay loses his case, and the mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), shows up that evening drunk, angry with Nikolay for causing delays; he humiliates Nikolay in front of his family as Dmitry tries to intervene and send the mayor away. Nikolay begins to fall apart as Vadim uses his political clout to destroy him; Nikolay finds himself losing everything, questioning God, and unaware of what horrible fate lies ahead.
Religion is present throughout Leviathan. A Russian Orthodox priest has ties with both Vadim and Nikolay. During a scene in which Roma goes off to be by himself along the shore, a skeleton of what appears to be a sea monster appears right in front of him. Later on, we see a living version of it in the water.
Leviathan has made the rounds at other film festivals and is a favorite to earn an Oscar nomination in the Foreign Film category, but the film isn’t without flaws. The pace is slow, and major plot events are often merely discussed rather than depicted. However, the film succeeds because of the mesmerizing characters, who are each engaged in their own personal struggles with morality.
The film covers a lot of hot topics in modern-day Russia, including political corruption and the resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church. One humorous scene references the Soviet Union, when one of Nikolay’s friends breaks out several framed pictures of leaders, including Stalin and Gorbachev, for target practice. He adds: “I have Yeltsin, too.”
It’s a film worth seeing. It’ll return to the valley on Friday, Feb. 13, at the Cinémas Palme d’Or.