Where we come from defines us more than we realize: That's the idea implicit in Andrey Zvyagintsev's somber, sturdily elegant drama Leviathan, in which a mechanic who has lived on the same parcel of land all his life — as his father and grandfather did before him — resists being forced out by his town's corrupt mayor.
Kolia (Alexeï Serebriakov) resides with his young wife, Lilya (Elena Liadova), and son Roma (Sergueï Pokhodaev) in a simple but striking house overlooking the Barents Sea in Russia's far north. Seemingly out of nothing but greed and spitefulness, the town's mayor, Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madianov), has long been angling to seize Kolia's land for himself, and he's just about succeeded: Kolia's lawyer friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) has come up from Moscow to mount a last-ditch effort to thwart Vadim, but the future is looking grim. Kolia is drinking way too much, Roma has become sullen and isn't doing well in school and Lilya seems to be drawing away from her husband, even as he's on the brink of losing everything. In short, bureaucracy has ruined his life.
But Kolia hasn't lost hope, and his determination is the solid, steady mechanism that keeps Leviathan moving. This is a dense, multilayered picture, one firmly rooted in a specific landscape, a dramatic coastal spot dotted with the carcasses of decrepit fishing boats, as well as the magnificent skeleton of one long-dead whale: All are reminders of everything the sea can give, or take away. Lilya works at a fish-processing plant — we watch as a procession of headless, gutted bodies flop onto a seemingly ceaseless conveyor belt, symbols of the monotony and uselessness that all human beings must resist. But Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena) isn't so much griping about the anxieties of living in modern Russia as he is lamenting the way life is changing everywhere: The worth of any patch of land is assessed only by its cost per acre. Who cares how many lives it has sustained over the years?
Leviathan — which took the best-screenplay prize at Cannes — may be steeped in despair, but it's not a heavy-handed sermon. Zvyagintsev injects humor, some of it politically risky, in sly, unexpected ways: A show-bizzy portrait of Putin, glowing with false benevolence, hangs above the desk of that fat-cat mayor; a jovial local cop, celebrating his birthday with a vodka-fueled picnic on the beach, sets up a makeshift shooting gallery consisting of portraits of former Russian leaders. But the heart and soul of Leviathan is Serebriakov's Kolia, who carries deep sorrow in his eyes and on his shoulders, even as he fends off defeat for longer than you'd imagine possible. Zvyagintsev, who grew up in Siberia, has said, "If my film is rooted in the Russian land, it is only because I feel no kinship, no genetic link with anything else." Kolia is the living embodiment of that land: He's everything that can't be washed away by the surf, or by the greed and ambition of mankind at its worst.