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(2014) **** R
140 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev. Cast: Roman Madyanov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Aleksey Serebryakov.

/content/films/4793/1.jpgMuch has been bandied about regarding the relationship between Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev's celebrated film Leviathan—an Academy Award nominee and winner of a Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe and Best Screenplay award at Cannes—and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow-based film critic Anton Dolin calls Leviathan "an open challenge to Putin's rule," and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker has stated, "There's no way it's not a political film, while Zvyagintsev understandably demurs, "Everyone will see in Leviathan something different, something that is familiar to them. But I strongly disagree when Leviathan is called just a social commentary—be it on corruption or the current state of affairs—in any given country. It's a story of human tragedy."

For his part, Zvyagintsev and co-screenwriter Oleg Negin have pointed out that the film's story was inspired by the true tale of nervous-brokedown Colorado mechanic Marvin John Heemeyer and Heinrich von Kleist's 1810 novella Michael Kohlhaas. And critics have (partly backed by the film's title) consistently seen in Leviathan both reference to Thomas Hobbes' characterization of the state and Biblical allusions: to the sea creature and the protagonist of the Book of Job (explicitly and implicitly name-checked in the film), and the Book of Kings' story of Naboth's Vineyard. That all of this and more lives in Leviathan demonstrates Zvyagintsev's deceptively simple but richly meaningful construction. Zvyagintsev literally and allegorically depicts modern Russia's runaway corruption but also captures universal fears about the shaky ground on which we construct our lives.

In the northern coastal town of Teriberka, bordering the White Sea, auto mechanic Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) suffers the torments of the damned. The home he shares with second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) stands in the way of the building plans of two corrupt and corpulent men: Mayor Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov) and the Russian Orthodox priest (Valeriy Grishko) who serves, in back-room dealings, as his not-so-silent partner. The struggle over the property shares time with other causes for despair (infidelity, loss of loved ones), with no one emerging unscathed from either Zvyagintsev the tragedian or Zvyagintsev the savage social satirist. Potent naturalistic acting, gorgeous cinematography and a Philip Glass score seal the deal of this haunting look at how power corrupts within cities and within personal and business relationships.

Months after its release, Leviathan continues to stir up controversy and trouble for its makers. Russian Minister of Culture Vladmiir Medinsky has been a vocal critic of the film, while parliamentarian Vitaly Milonov, calling the film "unpatriotic," has called for repayment of a government subsidy that contributed to the film's budget. Activists in Samara region are demanding that their regional culture minister see to the firing of Grishko from his job at the head of Samara's academic drama theater. The Russian release of the film was subjected to the censors' scissors due to its salty language. And Zvyagintsev, who has always played Cheshire Cat about the film's politics, recently complained of difficulty finding funding for his next film, citing a hostile, um, economic climate and the uncommercial subject matter of his films.

Of course, such trials are the stuff of Leviathan, within and without. "Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?" one character asks of the titular sea creature. "Nothing on earth is his equal." Despite glimmers of life and light, Zvyagintsev's film resolves into the dark and bleak, but from the outside looking into the film, Leviathan shines a cinematic light of artistic transcendence and triumph. Perhaps there is no understanding to be had of life's mysteries and cruelties, but great art—that looks unflinchingly at moral failures and the impotent rage they engender—is a good start.

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Aspect ratios: 2.39:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 5/19/2015

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony delivers a well-worthwhile Blu-ray special edition of Oscar-nominated Russian film Leviathan. Picture quality isn't as stellar as one might expect, given that it was shot on film and presented under the consistently sharp-looking Sony label. That said, it's unlikely that the film can look much better than this, given the low light under which most of the shadowy interiors are shot; those scenes lack shadow detail and are subject to a conspicuous flatness that's also, to be fair, part of an intentional design of dullness in definition and drabness in color. It's a different story when the lights are on or we're outside in natural light: those scenes, especially in contrast, noticably pop in detail, depth, and color. Overall, it's a solid and faithful presentation. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is unambiguously top-notch, with clear and well-prioritized dialogue nestled in a lively soundscape of carefully placed and mixed ambient effects, underscored with full-bodied music.

In bonus features, the disc offers an audio commentary with director Andrey Zvyagintsev and producer Alexander Rodnyansky. Presented in Russian (with English subtitles), the track provides an effective overview of the film's conception, production, themes, and characters, including the film's national character.

"The Making of Leviathan" (29:27, HD) is one of those terrific foreign featurettes that simply strings together B-roll from the set, allowing us a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the filmmaker's approach and a partial objective look at the making of of a few particular scenes.

In "An Evening at the Toronto International Film Festival with Andrey Zvyagintsev" (15:04, HD), TIFF Programer Cameron Bailey introduces Zvyagintsev, who particpates in a brief Q&A with the aid of a translator.

Rounding out the disc are a selection of "Deleted Scenes" (22:18, HD) and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:03, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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