It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Though it takes place in a small town and involves only a handful of characters, the Russian drama “Leviathan” has a feeling of expansiveness, even grandeur. It opens with distant, monumental views of Russia’s north shore, where huge rock formations slope down into a churning, slate-gray sea, images set to a propulsive Phillip Glass score. Soon we see the husks of abandoned sea-faring vessels along the water’s edge, where, later in the film, we’ll behold the enormous skeleton of a beached whale – a leviathan evoking both the Book of Job and Thomas Hobbes’ famous political tract.
A prize winner at Cannes and Russia’s nominee for this year’s Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, “Leviathan” is easily the most important and imposing film to emerge from Russia in recent years. Since its story conveys a sense of pervasive political corruption, it has been read as a daring and scathing critique of conditions in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and it is certainly fascinating to contemplate on that level. Yet there’s much more to writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s singular artistic vision than simple political allegorizing, as the hypnotic opening of “Leviathan” makes clear.
In a sense, the film takes us back to the first of Zvyagintsev’s four features, “The Return” (2003), which won the Golden Lion at Venice and became an international art-house hit. Both movies feature dramatic landscapes that almost function as an additional character. Yet geographic specificity has no importance here; we never learn where either story takes place. The locales may seem vividly real, but for Zvaginstsev they’re primarily mythic – crucibles for dramas of the Russian soul.
Both movies also feature Biblical references that have oblique political connotations. In “The Return,” about a gruff father who encounters his two teenage sons after an absence of 12 years, it’s the story of Abraham and Isaac, with the suggestion that the tale concerns the re-imposition of threatening paternalistic authority 12 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In “Leviathan,” the Book of Job references evoke timeless human suffering as well as the metaphysical questions it entails, while also pointing toward Hobbes’ notions of the freedoms that people surrender for the security of an authoritarian regime like Putin’s – a theme that obviously has implications for many countries besides Russia.