Posts Tagged ‘The Return’

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Lurking in the opening credits for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film were the ominous names of the Russian arts council and the government itself. This is quite perplexing because Zvyagintsev has announced himself as a formidable critic of contemporary Russia, which makes the approval of this film rather mysterious. Are Putin and his cohorts playing mind games worthy of Jose Mourinho? Is this a show of power by the government? Make your little film, we’ll even fund it, it won’t make a difference?

Although Zvyagintsev has stated that the film is inspired by a real story originating from America, it is hard not to see it as an explicit indictment of corruption in Russia. The parable-like Leviathan tells the story of Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov) and his family’s fight to save his property in a small coastal town in Russia. The piggish mayor Mer (Roman Madyanov) has decided Nikolay’s cherished spot of land is the perfect place to build his new abode, and Nikolay refuses to accept the pitiful compensation on offer for his life’s work.

He enlists the help of his old army comrade, the chiseled Moscow attorney Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who has unearthed some unsavoury information about Mer which could give them a fighting chance. Meanwhile Nikolay’s wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) struggles to cope with the isolation of the house and her frayed relationship with teenage Romka, who is unwilling to accept her as a new mother figure.  The characters are drawn out in broad strokes; Nikolay is the hot-headed, feisty underdog, Dmitriy the charming rationalist, Mer the bloated, corrupt authority figure.

It is in some ways quite a strange film coming from someone like Zvyagintsev. He started out with the enigmatic, brooding drama The Return, an incisive exploration of masculinity which reveled in the stoicism of its characters. The film was more about what was unsaid than what was said, a masterclass in atmosphere and icy, bleak visuals. Leviathan is quite the opposite, a film where most of the characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, emboldened by too many shots of vodka. The storytelling is quite conventional, dispensing with much of the ambience and intensity of Zvyagintsev’s earlier work.

Leviathan is almost three hours long but it doesn’t feel like it. The story is so involving that you are swept up in Nikolay’s plight and feel the pain and frustration that he is experiencing. It is a supremely confident tragedy, underlining the inherent rotten core of Russian politics. While Mer the mayor seems at times to be cartoonishly buffoonish and evil, the joke doesn’t really last that long as you realise that yes, this is actually the state of the world today. While I might quietly yearn for the mystique of Zvyagintsev’s earlier films, I cannot fault him for taking a hammer to bludgeon home the brutality of a corrupt society.

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Elena is the third feature film by Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev. He came to prominence with his startling debut The Return, an enigmatic, visually striking film about a family road trip. His reputation was sealed with an assured sophomore effort entitled The Banishment (you can see he has a penchant for mysterious titles) and whispers of an heir to Tarkovsky were heard. So Elena comes with a hefty set of expectations attached.

This parable-like tale concerns Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a steely housewife, caught between her rich husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) and layabout son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin). Elena used to care for Vladimir, but has now been married to him for 10 years. The couple live in a luxurious city apartment, while Sergey and his family live in poverty in a small deadbeat town. The director effectively juxtaposes these two opposing existences, perhaps making a point about the gap between the wealthy and the poor in modern day Russia.

Sergey urges his mother to acquire money from Vladimir, his stepfather, in order to pay for his obnoxious son to go to uni. Vladimir, a grumpy, stingy man, balks at Sergey’s laziness and refuses to cave in to the demands, not even to sate his wife. Elena is caught between two stubborn men, and when Vladimir starts to fall ill, she faces a dilemma about whose side she is going to take. Added into the mix is Vladimir’s estranged, hedonistic daughter Katerina (a sharp-eyed Yelena Lyadova).

The performances are routinely impressive, Markina especially working with a difficult, nuanced portrayal of loyalty and guilt. The film as a whole feels very enigmatic, very unshowy. At various points there are references to religion, and morality seems to be the major theme of the film. Aesthetically and thematically I would say this this is weaker than Zvyagintsev’s previous two films; the bleached out, expressive landscapes have been replaced with a more banal urban look. Despite this, the film is very accomplished and compelling, the understated moralistic dilemmas leaving it a quiet power.

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