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Review: 'Leviathan' is heavy Russian tragedy that's also funny

A movie inspired by the Book of Job is open to segueing into Kafkaesque comedy and Cassavetes-ian drunk sessions.
Leviathan

Aleksei Serebryakov's Nikolay falls on some hard times in "Leviathan," which is noSony Pictures Classics

'Leviathan’
Director:
Andrey Zvyagintsev
Stars: Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

Russia’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, “Leviathan” is very, very, very loosely based on the Book of Job — so much so that when a priest brings it up late in it barely even registers as underlining the subtext. Instead of a goodly man picked on from on high to prove a point, he’s Nikolay (Aleksei Serebryakov), a hotheaded small towner undone not by a cruel god but by bemused filmmakers. Nikolay has a property desired by a corrupt local politician (Roman Madyanov). He also has a younger wife (Elena Lyadova) he doesn’t bother to notice is deeply unhappy. And he has a slick city friend (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who swoops in to get drunk and shack up with his wife. All three conspire to bring forth Nikolay’s downfall, as does Nikolay’s own stupidity and pigheadeadness.

This isn’t happy stuff, and it’s heavy too, or at least seems to be: it even kicks off with a portentous montage of miserable landscapes at dawn set to a pounding Philip Glass piece. Thus prepped to soak in some traditionally Russian bleak-o-rama, we wind up with something more clinical, even funny. There’s even something comical about Nikolay’s descent, which resembles a Rube Goldbergian machine: a bunch of slights and little tragedies that spin inexorably towards destroying him.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev — whose “Elena” portrayed the combative relations between the callous rich and the, in the film’s eyes, sometimes parasitic poor — allows this nightmare to slip into something comparatively lighter, and even into Kafkaesque dark comedy. When cases go to court, the verdicts are spouted out in flat, super-fast fashion, so that no one — from those reading them aloud to the people they actually effect — could ever hope to take it all in. (The actress who reads them deserves a special trophy for out-motormouthing the Micro Machines guy.) A good third of the running time, meanwhile, is devoted to drinking sessions right out of a John Cassavetes picture, complete with actors drinking actual booze. No movie called “Leviathan” and not about a sea alien eating Daniel Stern(or about fish) should be this nimble.

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