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film review

Leviathan is Russia’s nomination for best foreign-language film at the Oscars, a category it is expected to win.Anna Matveeva

Call it what you like – a modern Russian epic, a crime drama, a black comedy or a scream in the dark – Leviathan is a shaggy masterpiece. The film is a portrait of contemporary Russia, with political corruption, constipated bureaucracy, rampant alcoholism and a resurgent church that lends ideological support to the oppressive regime. Yet it's also Russia's nomination for best foreign-language film at the Oscars, a category it is expected to win.

Leviathan is the fourth feature from 50-year-old filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena), a director whose fondness for long takes and spiritual themes has often drawn comparisons to the late Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky. At least, Leviathan starts in a contemplative mode, with stunning wide-screen images of the mountainous Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia, where low peaks end in dramatic seaside cliffs and the shore beneath is littered with boulders, boat wrecks and whale skeletons.

The camera settles on one fishing village where a ramshackle house has a particularly spectacular view. The house belongs to Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov), a blond, gruffly handsome auto-repair shop owner who lives in his ancestral home with his beautiful younger wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who guts fish on an assembly line at the local fish farm. They share their home with a teenaged son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), from Kolya's previous marriage.

On this morning, Kolya is facing the first of what becomes a long chain of crises. The mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), an obese, drunken clown with criminal links, wants to expropriate Kolya's property and he's using the courts to get his way. But Kolya has an ace up his sleeve: Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a former army buddy who's now a slick Moscow lawyer, knows how these things are handled. After Kolya makes an appearance at the court – in an absurdly protracted scene in which the decision against Kolya is rattled off by a court clerk – he tries to get an injunction against the destruction of his house. Every official he tries to see is either out of the office that day or running an errand. In his frustration, he ends up getting himself arrested and thrown in jail.

The cops and the courts may be in the mayor's pocket, but Dmitriy has a secret weapon: He has a folder documenting Vadim's checkered history, which, he tells the mayor, is "a horror movie with you in the lead." The mayor, who does not seem sufficiently worried, mulls this over.

Perhaps Leviathan might better be described as a horror comedy. In one terrifyingly funny sequence, a gang of friends, including off-duty cops, go on a vodka-fuelled picnic and shooting practice where they use framed portraits of former Soviet leaders as targets. A portrait of the current leader, Vladimir Putin, head cocked like an inquisitive collie, hangs above the mayor's desk.

Though it runs a hefty 2 1/2 hours, Leviathan has a sprawling design that feels almost too big for one film. The movie shifts tone, following different characters like a television serial. Scenes of comedy break out and then slide back to the default brooding tone. Lilya, frustrated and lonely, seeks comfort from the handsome Dmitriy, who just might take her back to Moscow. Kolya's son, Roma, retreats into drinking beer with his friends in the ruins of a church. The sodden mayor seeks permission for his crimes from his best friend, a bishop.

The moody score is by Philip Glass, who, as director Errol Morris correctly observed, is the go-to movie composer for existential angst. Though the film's ending feels like a cold shock, in retrospect, all the arrows have been pointing in that direction.

One source of the title is Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, a 1651 essay about the social contract, which argues in favour of subservience to the state to save us from the "war against all" that is man's natural condition. The other is from the Book of Job, in which God points out that no one can question Him, any more than they can tame the overwhelming power of the sea-monster Leviathan. A priest suggests to a drunken Kolya that he should accept his fate, and like Job "live to be 140." Zvyagintsev's own Leviathan accepts neither social subservience nor spiritual resignation but a defiant, vodka-fuelled spit in the eye of the beast.