Now and then it is nice to watch one of those ‘off the radar’ films. On SAS I can check out Danish films, which is how ‘After the Wedding’ became one of my favourites; and not just because it has Mads in it. Similarly, I can get my quotient of screen nudity and gallic noir on Air France. KLM has the odd Dutch corker. Since today I was on Aeroflot, a Russian independent film seemed to fit the bill. I chose ‘Leviathan’, with a cetacean-like running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Before I start, I should say that there is a cast-iron, copper-bottomed formula for successful small, independent movies. I mean those that cannot afford Tom Cruise, spectacular stunts or Jurassic Park-style CGI. The formula is this: long, drawn-out shots of grey, rainy shores; monotonal Sigur Ros-type Scandi music that builds to a crescendo; mysterious characters who share meaningful looks, but don’t say much; others who fail to answer direct questions, then walk away slowly; long tracking shots that go on just a little too long. Hints of past troubles, as in the detective shows. And, finally, the Number 1 cliché; final scenes that mirror the opening ones, switching on an involuntary light bulb in the brain, triggering an emotional response. In other words, the overall feel is ‘moody ambiance’.
‘Leviathan’, clearly filmed on a tight budget, ticks all these boxes. Having said that, the movie paints a fascinating picture of small town corruption and modern attitudes in Russia. I also get the impression that the film is subversive, though, as an outsider, it is difficult to be sure. For example, in one hunting scene the drunken characters use old portraits, including Brezhnev, Lenin and Gorbachev, as shooting targets. One asks the other if he ‘has anything more recent?’, probably tantamount to treason.
They used to say, in England, that ‘it is grim up North’. Try ‘grim up North in Russia’ and you get the atmosphere of ‘Leviathan’. Like a Russian version of Get Carter (the one with Michael Caine, not Sylvester). I only persisted to the end because I was hoping for some sort of happy resolution. I won’t give the game away.
The plot is this. Kolya, the town mechanic, and his beautiful younger wife and son, are to be evicted by the corrupt mayor from their land. Though a great handyman, Kolya is clearly no architect; he built the only house in town with enormous glass windows, which must mean hellish heating bills in the bitter winter. Mind you, it does make for good lighting in crucial drinking scenes, set in the bright kitchen. At the start of the film he is pitted in battle against the mayor, who, in the tradition of all great movies, is fat and has the police and judiciary in his back pocket. It is all downhill for Kolya from there on. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. His wife sleeps with the hotshot Moscow lawyer who comes to help out. His son goes off the rails, starts to drink, and stares at beached whale skeletons moodily, never a good sign. The wife contemplates flinging herself into the sea, while a whale, possibly the only CGI in the movie, breaches the choppy water below. So far, so moody.
There is a religious component; the local Russian Orthodox priest, a bearded, handsome chap, spouts moralistic rubbish, but seems to condone bad behaviour. Misogyny is everywhere. Wives are beaten, abused and generally mistreated. (And after reading an article on domestic abuse in the Moscow Times, on this same Aeroflot flight, this seems a sad and realistic assessment of modern day Russia.)
The film is steeped in alcohol. The characters spend over 50% of the time drunk; in fact, I don’t think I have seen such fine drunken acting since Burton and Taylor. Perhaps they really were drunk? Alcohol is prevalent in the best scenes. A wife asks her paralytic husband if he is OK to drive; he replies, ‘of course, I’m a traffic cop!’ Kolya is asked, in the shop, what he wants to buy. His response, ‘vodka, what else?’ It begs the question, is alcoholism really this prevalent in Russia? My limited drinking experiences (you know who you are) suggest that vodka is widely enjoyed and that there is no such thing as ‘just one shot’.
In my Russian Sit Reps I often mention the poor condition of Russian housing stock, outside the main population centres. The remote, northern fishing town that is the backdrop to ‘Leviathan’ is populated by these buildings; ruined churches, crumbling fish factories, dank apartments. The filmmakers linger over these images of decay and even a moron like me can figure out their overall thesis, that Russian society is also decaying. This message is bludgeoned home. I would love to know what my Russian friends made of the film. Perhaps I am completely barking up the wrong tree.
In summary, be prepared for the long haul and seriously reduced bandwidth when you stream ‘Leviathan’ from Netflix. Yes, it would have been better with half an hour trimmed. But there are great rewards to be had. Fine acting, hilarious drunken scenes and luminous landscapes. And, after all, how many Russian-centric movies, apart from Dr Zhivago and the brilliant Battleship Potemkin, have you seen? (I am not counting Rocky IV.)