Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Leviathan" is a tough sell for a night at the movies. The story of a poor Russian villager fighting a corrupt bureaucracy, "Leviathan" sounds almost like a parody of an Oscar-nominated foreign-language film. Fair warning: The movie that won, the Polish Holocaust drama "Ida," is upbeat by comparison.
"Leviathan" is set on the coast of the Barents Sea in a village whose residents survive mostly on fish and vodka. Aleksey Serebryakov plays Kolya, a family man (Sergey Pokhodaev and Elena Lyadova play his teenage son and new wife) who owns a small garage. Kolya literally and metaphorically greases wheels, fixing the cars of local policemen essentially for free.
No one steps up, however, when Mayor Vadim forcibly purchases Kolya's land for a paltry sum. Vadim, played with relish by Roman Madyanov, is basically a mobster disguised as an apparatchik, a boorish drunk who controls the cops and the courts with the blessing of the Orthodox Church. Only Kolya's attorney friend from Moscow, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), dares to take a stand. Dmitri saunters into Vadim's office with a folder full of dirt, hoping to encourage a quiet settlement. Things don't turn out that way.
Our first clue that "Leviathan" is something larger than a tale of small-town woe is a portrait hanging in Vadim's office. It's of Vladimir Putin, the former Soviet KGB official and current president of Russia. The message seems clear: There's little difference between the local bully and the national one.
"Leviathan" takes its title from Thomas Hobbes' 1651 book about the freedoms we give up in exchange for government rule, and the enormous whale skeleton that sits near Kolya's home suggests that the social contract is in decay. The movie ends with a controlled stream of anger that damns just about every institution in Russia. It's Zvyagintsev's sense of outrage that makes "Leviathan" worth the heavy lift.