Andre Zvyagintsev's Leviathan is thus far the film of the year and it made a lot more sense to me after reading John McDonald's review in today's (Saturday 28th March) Australian Financial Review. The benefits of a classical education come through at times and I'm always impressed when someone can pull these threads and allusions together to enhance appreciation. Zvyagintsev's career till now has focused on the wreckage created in post-communist Russia. He yearns in some unspecified way for spiritual values to come to the fore. In his last two films (I haven't seen his 2007 film, The Banishment), Elena (2011) and now Leviathan (2014), he has assembled two galleries of crooks, thieves, corrupt officials, layabouts and opportunists. The amount of vodka they consume is prodigious and everybody smokes incessantly. You can understand why Russian average life expectancy has fallen into the sixties. These galleries are presented with a quietude that belies the stupendous sense of close to the surface violence that infects virtually every scene, even those involving what otherwise might seem to be simple family pleasures.
Elena was a film with a sharp and daring plot of a woman well into middle-age whose well-being is threatened and who chooses the side of her oafish, drunken, unemployed son, rather than that of her latest husband, a well off former military officer whose standard of living in retirement suggests a former life spent breaking the rules for self-aggrandisement. The machinations of the various family members, on each side, were lethal. Leviathan is grander in its ambitions (which is where John McDonald's writing is so good) and fearless in its symbolic elements - most especially the beached whale, the ruined church used as a secret drinking hole by the local youth and the picture of Putin perfectly positioned so as to provide a modern iconic halo behind the head of the overweight and ruddy-faced mayor and political fixer who runs the show in this far-flung outpost on the sea.
You keep thinking all this is going to somehow slowly reveal wrong being righted but (slight spoiler alert) 'fraid not. The bad guys win.
...and there were no difficulties in getting the film into competition at Cannes and nominating it for a Foreign-Language Oscar. Holding the new Russia up to this sort of piercing light doesn't worry a state where the state just kills its enemies in broad daylight.