Monday, February 16, 2015

"Leviathan" Film Review (Two Thumbs Up!)

"God sees everything we do."

Leviathan stands out as unique from any film I've ever seen. Some have traveled down the same road, none have ever gone as far. One could argue it is performance art as the film never shows its true face or even gives a hint. You may believe of it as you wish and in your eyes find no contradiction. This is a film where both a liberal and conservative could walk out of the theater both applauding - though only one can be right, of course.

First, if you do plan on seeing this Russian gem, do not read past this paragraph nor read anything else written of the film. The plot is only a vehicle and in that sense is immaterial. The true beauty of the film lies in its discovery as it slowly unravels. But, if you never look for it, it's never seen! The defeatism that lies in the heart of the Russian soul gives birth to a duality that says both good and evil will win. It's in this chasm this film resides.

***SPOILERS***

The ostensible plot is that of a corrupt mayor of a small scenic village wanting to take the land of a mechanic who owns a most scenic spot. The mayor is working with developers who have big plans for the land with riches for all. The battle has worked its way through the courts with the mechanic on his last appeal. But all is not lost. He has a lawyer friend coming from Moscow to hopefully save the day.


The point of this is to show how power politics trumps legality in Russia. The Mayor will win in court because it's rigged for him to win. But the lawyer drops a name from the national committee that trumps the Mayor. The law is an afterthought and is brilliantly portrayed by a terrifying monotone speed-talking announcement of the court decision. I wondered while watching this how this passed muster with the Russian authorities but that became clear later on.

The Moscow lawyer also has a folder full of corruption of the Mayor. In exchange for this he demands full value for the land the Mayor has taken in court. The Mayor is terrified when he reads the folder, thus exposing himself to the audience as corrupt beyond redemption. Here things take a left turn. Surely the bad guy will fall and the little guy triumph! But this is an observational film, not a statement film.

The Russian Orthodox Church has long been a powerful force in Russia, intertwined in its fabric. It's about as worldly and ungodly organization as you can find. (Putin installing one of his KGB buddies as its head tells you all you need to know. This was also part of the protest Pussy Riot wanted to point out.) As power-seekers, they love to play the games of politics and the local priest advises the Mayor in his dealing throughout the film. With his constant spouting of platitudes it's hard to see where he's coming from at first, but the truth will out.


His first piece of real advice is to play hardball with the Moscow lawyer. "All power comes from God. As long as it suits Him, fear not." The Mayor follows his advice, takes the lawyer to a remote location, has the shit kicked out of him, handcuffs him, then fires several shots point blank just to the side of him. The lawyer is left stranded and we never see him again. But the fun doesn't stop there.

Before being run off, the lawyer has an affair with his mechanic friend's attractive wife. When the wife is found washed up on the shore a few days later the mechanic is taken in as an imprint on the back of her head matches up with a tool in his garage. The mechanic is bewildered by these events like an innocent man would be. At that point he runs into the priest asking for an explanation for the tribulations he's going through.

The priest responds with a brilliant perversion of the story of Job, intimating Job was a questioner of God (he wasn't) and that was what brought on his troubles (to get the mechanic to self-blame). The pervert goes on to explain Job refused to listen to his friends who gave him good advice during his time of woe (actually they dog-piled Job with their meddling so they could feel morally superior). The priest says all this with authority and conviction and the filmmaker gives no hint of disagreement in this portrayal.


The mechanic is sent away for 15 years. It's not until his friends come to adopt his teenage son can we discern the truth. Again, it's subtle and has to be looked for but we can see his son killed his wife (who was his hated step-mother). The boy never reveals that truth and that's the whole point: truth unspoken cannot triumph. We see the mayor cackling at the end with his developer buddies, then standing piously with his family listening to the priest's unholy sermon which seeks to justify the pursuit for power, causing the Mayor to whisper in his son's ear, "God sees everything we do."

Those who search for the truth will see this film as a slick commentary on hypocrisy. Those who do not will see it as a justification for the abuse of power, sort of like Gordon Gekko was a hero to the greedy. Any debate on what this film is about is pointless. Either you get it or you don't. It would be hilarious to hear conservatives' comments in praise of this film never knowing how thoroughly they had been mocked. Jesus said he came here to divide, so did this film.


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