Friday, January 30, 2015

173. US director Damien Chazelle’s second feature film “Whiplash” (2014): The ultimate Svengali levelled

I saw a drive in him” —Terence Fletcher in Whiplash, referring to his former student Sean Casey 
The next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged” —Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

A quick assessment of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash would be that the film is about a music student carving out a drumming career in a jazz band. Another would be classifying the film as a tale of a musician’s long and winding journey to acquire recognition by the critics who matter.  Others would only remember the film as one that forces the viewer to hate and cringe at the actions of an inhuman mentor, a perfectionist, who wrecks the lives of young creative diligent minds by physical and verbal abuse, all for his own goal in life. While all these are justifiable perceptions of the film, young Damien Chazelle’s script and film offers more than the obvious.

The film’s opening sequence is of the camera (the viewer’s point of view) entering a darkened corridor at the end of which the student Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is religiously practicing on a drum and cymbal set.  Concentrating on his music, he is oblivious of all else around him.  The lighting and camera movement innocuously provide the prologue for what is to follow without a word spoken. Chazelle’s poster of the film too captures that very mood. The spotlight is on the drummer.  And that is what could mislead the viewer. The film is equally about what is not under the spotlight, the shadowy part of the space, surrounding the drummer.The film is as much about the various characters (the teacher, the father and the lover) in the film who directly and indirectly shapes Andrew to what he becomes ultimately.

Fletcher (Simmons) (right) exacting what he wants from the drummer

The prologue over, from the darkened closed doors emerge a man in black Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons) like a cat’s stealthy entrance, followed  by a defining staccato conversation and the removal of his jacket (denoting that he is at work), and an equally dramatic exit slamming the doors only to reappear again apologetically to retrieve his jacket. Most viewers will be transfixed by the overpowering presence of the man in black (Simmons), but a keen viewer will note the effect is totally orchestrated by the scriptwriter and director Chazelle. It is not Simmons who has grabbed your attention; it is Chazelle who is really shaking up the viewer, with the lighting, Fletcher’s clothes, the quiet entry and the loud exit. Chazelle by getting Fletcher to remove his jacket for such a short time has told the viewer that the man takes his job very, very seriously.

Whiplash is more than a movie about music; it is a lovely work exploring the ultimate Svengali bringing out the best of drumming in a wannabe using insults, intimidation, skulduggery and psychological manipulation. While Andrew takes the spotlight, Fletcher is the less assessed ogre lurking in the shadows.

Developing the Charlie Parker in a first year student with  'a drive"

The viewer is manipulated by Chazelle to hate Terence Fletcher, who does everything to ensure his jazz ensemble is the best of the best. He spots the “drive” in a former trumpet player Sean Casey when the rest of the Schaefer School of Music faculty was telling him “Maybe this isn’t for you “ (who the viewer never gets to see on screen), picks him for his ensemble just as he does Andrew the drummer, to push them to the limits psychologically and physically to bring out the best. Sean Casey ultimately becomes the first trumpet at Lincoln Center.  Only Casey dies shortly after “in a car accident” according to Fletcher.  Casey’s Svengali—Terrence Fletcher (Simmons)—is sorry and provides a eulogy for the departed in a touching manner by making his entire ensemble listen to a CD of Casey, with the name Sean scribbled on it, playing. Evidently, Fletcher had recorded Casey’s musical output and kept the recording with him. There is a human side to the beast, who spits out venom at his students, and yet spots the real potential talent, shapes that, and makes them famous. Much later in the film, we learn that Sean Casey did not die in a car accident but hanged himself. Fletcher can lie as well. The spacing and timing of the two differing bits of information about Casey's death provided to the viewer is clever. The original details that Chezelle provides work as an antidote to the evil sketch of Fletcher elsewhere in the film.  The revised information on Casey’s death makes the viewer to reappraise Fletcher and his tactics. So are the innocuous yet brilliant lines written by Chezelle and mouthed by Fletcher “I never really had a Charlie Parker.  But I tried. I actually fucking tried. And that’s more than most people ever do.” The man in black is not all black. He too has a talent to spot the Charlie Parkers of the future and chisel them into a live Charlie Parker. And he does transform Andrew into a Charlie Parker, Andrew’s ideal musician.

Who is this Charlie Parker mentioned again and again in this movie? Charlie Parker is a legendary jazz saxophonist who often combined jazz with blues, Latin and Classical music. The recurring references to Parker in Whiplash relate to a real incident involving Parker, the jazz saxophonist. Apparently a real drummer colleague of the teenage Charlie Parker named Jo Jones threw a cymbal at the floor near Parker’s feet because Parker didn’t change key with the rest of the band (according to Wikipedia) , just as Fletcher threw a cymbal close to Andrew’s head in Whiplash. In real life that incident apparently inspired Charlie Parker to practice inordinately until he became a legend in music. In Whiplash, Charlie Parker is first mentioned over dinner by Andrew. Then you hear Fletcher wishing he had a Charlie Parker to mentor. And finally you see Andrew transform into a Charlie Parker not with a saxophone, bit with the drums. Again, if one looks at the film closely it is the brilliant screenplay that comes out trumps.

Light and shadows effectively used by Chezelle

There are aspects of the Svengali’s manipulation that one has to conjecture from what is not shown in screen.  One of them relates to the mysterious disappearance of the musical notes folder of the drummer Fletcher decides is better than Andrew. Fletcher tells the band never to lose the notes.  Then director/scriptwriter shows Fletcher noticing Andrew sitting by the drummer turning pages for the drummer. This is followed by the mysterious disappearance of the folder. One can only surmise that it was Fletcher who ensured the disappearance so that Andrew could play without the notes.  If the viewer takes the incident to be happenstance, one is missing out on the brilliance of the screenplay (Chezelle) and editing (Tom Cross) in Whiplash.

It would be short-sighted to view Whiplash as a duel of egos between the mentor and the mentored. Whiplash is more about levelling of the egos between the two. A keen viewer will note the camera perspective that allowed Fletcher to tower over ensemble players throughout the film  making a defining change in the  point of view  at the end when drummer  seems to be looking down at the conductor Fletcher, and finally having both Fletcher and Andrew  appear at the same visual level, each appreciating the other. So much is said in the film without the spoken word—in a movie where spoken word seems to be overarching at key moments. Are the words of Fletcher, “Not my tempo” more memorable in the film or the door opening precisely when second hand of the clock moves to 9 o’clock? There are invisible aspects of Fletcher the Terrible not so subtly brought on screen by the scriptwriter/director. The reconciliation between the tormentor and the tormented, the mutual admiration of each others talent and the manner in which the unusual ending shows the gains of the lies, torture, and manipulation that helps another Charlie Parker arrive on the music scene are laudable.

The Svengali in black merges with the shadows

Ironically Whiplash is competing with one another film at the Oscars that deals with another obsession of another character, that of the real life Alan Turing the mathematician turned inventor of the world’s first computer in The Imitation Game. In both films, a flat tyre delays two different characters to make the films interesting. In both films, the love interests are peripheral to the tale but add considerably to the character development. In both films, the protagonists are loners in school with no friends. Only Whiplash does it all with subtlety, an aspect bereft in the competing film. But then most audiences do not appreciate subtlety.

The shadows/lack of lighting gains importance in the final drum sequence as in the prologue as lights seems to go off before Andrews drum solo takes centre stage.  Fletcher is shadowed out, the ensemble is not lit, and slowly the drums are lit by the spotlight.  Then follows the amazing solo by Andrew which at times are not heard (by the human ear but heard by the mind’s ear) but only seen (a brilliant exhibition of sound mixing in the history of cinema and deserving of the Oscar nomination). First, Chezelle shows us the sweat drops on the cymbals and later a few drops of blood.  Fletcher is shown lending a helping hand to set Andrew's cymbals right. Fletcher takes off his jacket during the solo as in the first scene of Fletcher in Whiplash.  Fletcher is in business again, he has spotted the real Charlie Parker.  Such importance to details make Chezelle’s work truly amazing. The final body language between Fletcher and Andrew is one of mutual appreciation. A Svengali is sometimes needed. Somewhere in the shadows, Andrew’s dad’s visage changes from concern for his son’s physical agony to one of celebration. What a film! It is one of the finest films from USA in a long while with incredible attention to scriptwriting, editing, sound mixing (that includes patches of near silence) and cinematography.  The contribution of Simmons as Fletcher is overarching in this lovely film. Chezelle deserved a nomination for direction as well, despite the Oscar snub.  One wishes the 30 year old Chezelle, with just two feature films behind him, proves to be a Charlie Parker of cinema.

P.S. Whiplash is one of the author's best ten movies of 2014 and the only one from USA.  The film won 3 Oscars-- Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor (for J K Simmons) and Best Sound Mixing. It has won the Golden Globe award and the BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actor for J.K.Simmons who plays Fletcher. At BAFTA, it picked up awards also for editing and sound. At Sundance Film Festival it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience award. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

172. Argentine director Damián Szifrón’s “Wild Tales” (Relatos salvajes) (2014): Black comedy that entertains while making us introspect

The "wild" characters from the six segments

Wild Tales is a gem of an entertainer made up of six stand-alone, dark, comic tales. It is a portmanteau film with a difference; all the six tales are written and directed by one man--Damián Szifrón.  He is also the co-editor of this impressive work. Surprisingly, this Argentine director is only in his late thirties and he has made a film that belies his age. Most audiences will love it because there are elements in the six tales they will easily identify with, irrespective of where they live on this planet.  Interestingly, the film was co-produced by the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, who must be delighted that he has invested his money well.

It is “wild” because it depicts extreme reactions of ordinary individuals, who are frustrated by present urban societal pressures and the outcomes are quite plausible if the frustrated individuals are left with little or no choice to correct their predicaments, created often not by themselves but by others. Damián Szifrón may be zooming in on frustrations in urban Argentina but a global viewer would easily identify the situations as universal.

"Pasternak": Wild revenge of a snubbed creative mind

The opening segment “Pasternak” is a prologue to the main film before you see the film’s credits hilarious credit sequence. The prologue is essential for the viewer to appreciate the comic elements in the illustrated animals shown in the credits.  The humans in the film Wild Tales are not far removed from the colorful wild animals in the credit sequence. The humans are ordinary people who can indeed become wild.

Without providing spoilers for those who are yet to enjoy the film, it is important to note ’’Pasternak” is a tale relating to the frustrations of a budding music composer named Pasternak, who finds his creative output is trashed by critics/professors and his life is gradually ripped apart by several people in his life. And the brilliant part of this segment is that you never get to see Mr Pasternak—you only get to see those who have ruined him.

"The Rats:" How to deal with rats in a restaurant 

The next segment “The Rats” is set in a restaurant but the rodents are human.  The human rat is a social climber who has succeeded in life by trampling down on poorer sections of society, often wrecking their lives with impunity and killing the bread winners of marginal lower middle class families who cannot survive the economic pressures.  This segment also presents the flip side view of lower middle class family members driven to prison for offences created by economic strains and eventually preferring to remain behind bars with basic food and amenities rather than succumb to “human” rodents who wreck your life outside prison.

"The Strongest": Class wars on the road

The segment “The Strongest” is all about road rage of two individuals with a difference. Director-writer Damián Szifrón adds the element of social economic disparity—one is driving a high-end car, the other a jalopy, both using the same highway.  The rich look at the slow moving jalopy refusing to give way for fast moving cars with disdain. The poor look to avenge the cocky rich. Who is stronger? The best part is the finale of the segment where the policeman makes an ironical statement. Kudos to the writer Damián Szifrón! The audience anywhere will erupt when they hear that line. (This critic is intentionally not reproducing it as it would be spoiler!)

"Little Bomb": The expert demolisher (Ricardo Darin) demolished

Argentine actor Ricardo Darin is impressive in every role in every film that this critic recalls having seen him in and the segment “Little Bomb” in Wild Tales is no exception. Ricardo Darin plays a well-paid demolition expert, married and a father of a lovely girl. His well heeled life is slowly demolished by a private sector Buenos Aires traffic entity responsible for ensuring cars are parked only in designated places and having the authority to tow away those that do not comply to the rules.

But such entities can get high handed and citizens can get high strung, if they are convinced that they did not break any rules but have option but to pay the large fines. This segment also reveals writer Damián Szifrón’s empathy for the parking woes of car owners in Buenos Aires and how a “terrorist” can become a local hero. Damián Szifrón’s characters here and elsewhere act and react as ordinary individuals driven up against the wall by forces un-intentionally created by a well-meaning society.

The segment “The Proposal” reiterates Damián Szifrón’s interest in the class divide and how the rich try to use the poor to get out of nasty situations such as a rich family member causing a car accident leading to a death of a poor citizen.  As in the earlier segment “The Rats,” Szifrón’s script deals with corruption but in “The Proposal” that aspect is openly shown with amazing humor. The black comedy takes a U-turn when the righteous, scarred public avenges by “wildly” killing the wrong person.

"Till Death Do Us Part": The bride confirms the bridegroom's infidelity

The final segment titled “Till Death Do Us Part”—the famous wedding phrase used in Christian weddings--is about a wedding reception for the newlyweds in a hotel in Buenos Aires.  The bride stumbles on a hidden relationship the bridegroom has with one of the invited guests and what follows is best described by Shakespeare’s words “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” The resulting “wild” roller coaster events during the wedding reception constitute black comedy, sinister and yet hilarious.

While we laugh at all the six segments, there are pointers from the film to take home. Can critics destroy creative minds? Can the upwardly mobile successful citizens realize who they have trampled along the way? Can we project our road rage towards people who are indeed breaking rules without considering the consequences? Can the private and public sector perform with a heart towards society? Can public rage against corruption and the wrongdoings of the rich go sadly wrong?  Can spouses who fall deeply in love forgive each other’s weaknesses?

Wild Tales is a combination of intelligent original screenplay writing and good direction. This wild film is a social critique of Argentina today, entertaining the audiences in its stride. Intelligent comedy is not easy; Wild Tales makes it look easy. The numerous audience awards it has picked up at film festivals globally testify to its universal appeal and for Argentine cinema, rare indeed is a film that has won a staggering tally of 15 national awards. Damián Szifrón has arrived on the world cinema map.

P.S. Wild Tales  has won audience awards at the San Sebastian film festival, the Sao Paulo film festival, the Sarajevo film festival, and the Oslo Films of the South film festival. Its box office returns have already exceeded 7 times its production cost. It is one of the 5 films that made the final  list of nominees for the Best Foreign Film Oscar 2015 but did not win it. Wild Tales is one of the author's top 10 films of 2014.

Friday, January 02, 2015

171. Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film “Leviathan” (2014): A bold political film made with a superb aesthetic flourish

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.” Thomas Hobbes, in his political book on statecraft called Leviathan, published in 1651

“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it  speak to you with gentle words? Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house? Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears? If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of  it is overpowering." Book of Job, Chapter 41, 1-9 in the Holy Bible (Job is referred to as Ayub in the Holy Koran) (This quotation is recalled in part by the priest in Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan)

All the four Andrei Zvyagintsev feature films—The Return, The Banishment, Elena, and Leviathan  provide an unusual amalgam of family relationships, politics, religion, philosophy, literature, psychology, sociology,  visual metaphors  and music. Each element grips the viewer when recognized in each of the films. Each element provokes inward looking questions in the minds of the viewers. Zvyagintsev is one of the best filmmakers worldwide who consistently make awesome films for those who can appreciate serious cinema—alongside directors such as Terrence Malick (USA), Carlos Reygadas (Mexico), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey), Paolo Sorrentino (Italy), and Naomi Kawase (Japan).

Each of Zvyagintsev’s four films have deservedly won major accolades at premier film festivals (the Golden Lion at Venice for The Return; the Best Actor award at Cannes for Banishment; the Un Certain Regard section Jury prize at Cannes, Silver Peacock for Best Actress at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa,  and the Grand Prize at the Ghent International festival for Elena;  Best Screenplay award at Cannes, the Golden Peacock for Best Film and the Silver Peacock for Best Actor at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa, and the Best Film at the London Film Festival for Leviathan).

Zvyagintsev's Job is the honest Nikolai (shortened to Kolya in the film) willing
to forgive an erring wife: A Silver-Peacock-winning performance
by Alexei Serebryakov 

At a very elementary level, Leviathan is a tale of an honest man resisting the wiles of a corrupt Mayor of his coastal town to grab the land on which he and his ancestors lived. The honest man Nikolai --shortened to Kolya-- (Alexei  Serebryakov) is on the verge of losing his house when even the courts go against him.  His former friend from his Army days Dimitri—shortened to Dimi--, now a high flying lawyer practicing in Moscow, arrives with powerful connections and documents to checkmate the corrupt Mayor. The tragedy that follows is not far removed from a Biblical character called Job (or Ayub, if you are a Muslim).

When critics like me discover and point out elements of politics and theology in Zvyagitsev’s entire oeuvvre, readers are sceptical if too much is ascribed to a film beyond the obvious narrative tale. In the earlier films of Zvyagintsev, politics and theology were partly hidden behind visual and aural symbols. Many viewers of the first three Zvyagintsev films would have discounted the theological elements unless they were well read in the scriptures and acquainted with the cinema of Andrei Tarkovksy. Both the late Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky and  Andrei Zvyagintsev (the latter is in his early fifties)  are intellectuals who have good knowledge of Christian scriptures and use them to enhance the depth of their cinema.  

The title of the film Leviathan comes from two interlinked sources:  the Biblical Book of Job (Chapter 41) and Thomas Hobbes’ political book Leviathan  (published in 1651) on statecraft linking politics and religion. Unlike Zvyagintsev’s preceding three films, where religion and politics remained partly hidden, in Leviathan Zvyagintsev openly discusses both elements. There is a scene in Leviathan where wall portraits of past Russian leaders Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev are consciously used as targets for rifle shooting during a picnic and even Yeltsin is disparagingly referred in the dialogue.  (Putin is not included here, but a photograph of Putin is discretely on the wall in the Mayor's office, just as Tarkovsky added Trotsky’s photograph on the wall in a brief scene in Mirror.) Religion, too, comes to the fore in Leviathan, as the Book of Job passage is quoted by a priest in the film and the penultimate ironical sequence is a church sermon by a bishop with the villainous mayor and his family listening to it with piety.  Tarkovsky, who could never be bold to openly criticize the Russian politics, would have been delighted to see what Zvyagintsev has achieved in Leviathan. One guesses that Zvyagintsev realized that his political and religious statements through symbols used in his earlier works did not reach out to a wide audience and he had to be more explicit in Leviathan. Even the TV program shown briefly in Leviathan is discussing the Pussy Riot case. Ironically, Leviathan is Russia’s official entry to the 2015 Oscars.

It is therefore relevant to reproduce below  the director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s statement provided at the Cannes film festival for the media on his film Leviathan

“When a man feels the tight grip of anxiety in the face of need and uncertainty, when he gets overwhelmed with hazy images of the future, scared for his loved ones, and fearful of death on the prowl, what can he do except give up his freedom and free will, and hand these treasures over willingly to a trustworthy person in exchange for deceptive guarantees of security, social protection, or even of an illusory community?”
 “Thomas Hobbes’ outlook on the state is that of a philosopher on man’s deal with the devil: he sees it as a monster created by man to prevent ‘the war of all against all’, and by the understandable will to achieve security in exchange for freedom, man’s sole true possession.”
 “Just like we are all, from birth, marked by the original sin, we are all born in a ‘state’. The spiritual power of the state over man knows no limit.”
“The arduous alliance between man and the state has been a theme of life in Russia for quite a long time. But if my film is rooted in the Russian land, it is only because I feel no kinship, no genetic link with anything else. Yet I am deeply convinced that, whatever society each and everyone of us lives in, from the most developed to the most archaic, we will all be faced one day with the following alternative: either live as a slave or live as a free man. And if we naively think that there must be a kind of state power that can free us from that choice, we are seriously  mistaken. In the life of every man, there comes a time when one is faced with the system, with the “world”, and must stand up for his sense of justice, his sense of God on Earth.”
“It is still possible today to ask these questions to the audience and to find a tragic hero in our land, a ‘son of God’, a character who has been tragic from time immemorial, and this is precisely the reason why my homeland isn’t lost yet to me, or to those who have made this film.

The predicament of the character Job of the Bible is not far removed from the pile of misfortunes heaped on a good man Nikolai or Kolya in Leviathan. Zvyagintsev, like Tarkovsky, is very familiar with the Bible and weave elements from it into his films.  Nikolai in Leviathan represents the average good Russian.  

The good working class Kolya is broken like Job in the Bible from all sides
as misfortunes pile up: yet he forgives his erring wife
Co-scriptwriter Oleg Negin worked on the last three Zvyagintsev films including Leviathan. Zvyagintsev and Negin weave in politics and religion with a rare felicity; they bring to mind the collaboration of the Polish Kieslowski and his co-scriptwriter Piesiewicz. However, Zvyagintsev’s collaboration with music composer Philip Glass is limited to Elena and Leviathan. Philip Glass’ music used in the film was Glass’ composition Akhnaten, the Pharaoh, who practiced monotheism in ancient Egypt. That operatic musical composition  also deals with power and religion, not far removed from the subject of Leviathan. The use of Glass’ music in the two Zvyagintsev films could serve as a master-class for some of the Hollywood’s currently feted directors because Zvyagintsev uses music only when it is essential and relevant and adjusts the volume with care. The rest is diegetic sound on his film soundtracks.  The third major Zvyagintsev collaborator is his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who continues to contribute richly to the visual canvas in all the four Zvyagintsev films. While most viewers will recall the fossilized bones of a blue whale in Leviathan, the most enigmatic shot in the film is the shot of a live whale in the distance at a key point in the film—the last scene of Kolya’s wife alive in the film as she contemplates the sea and her predicament. What Zvyagintsev and Krichman achieved in Leviathan in the final snowbound sequence was ironically close to the final shots of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, the Turkish film that competed with Leviathan and won the top prize at the 2014 Cannes film festival. Though both are amazing films, Leviathan, for this critic had more plus points when comparing both. Most importantly, Leviathan was more original in content than the Golden Palm winning Winter Sleep, which was anchored to a Chekov story. Most of all, Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, though referring to Hobbes and the Bible, is extraordinarily brave in showcasing the corruption in contemporary non-Communist Russia. And like Ceylan's Winter Sleep, Leviathan also underscores the plight of the poor when the rich and powerful people, crush their lives. Even the motives behind an apparent good deed to adopt a friend's teenage son is questioned in the film.

Zvyagintsev’s cinema is not the run-of-the-mill cinema. Many crucial scenes of the tale are never shown on screen—he prefers to show the aftermath. The viewer is forced to imagine what could have happened. The fight between Nikolai and Dimitri is never shown; we only see Dimitri’s injured face. The death of Kolya’s wife is never shown; only her dead body is shown.  The evil antagonist forces are described in a reverse quixotic detail when the corrupt Mayor asks Dimitri, the lawyer, if he was baptized, when Dimitri confronts the Mayor with the evidence of his "sins." What a loaded question, and the irony is, who is asking! The Orthodox Bishop asks the corrupt Mayor "We are in God's house. Did you take communion?" and reminds him that both are doing God's work.  One of the final scenes is of the corrupt Mayor’s child looking up at the church’s ceiling after the sermon which includes the statement of the Bishop "Love dwells not in strength but in love". Nothing in Zvyagintsev’s cinema is without considered thought. An intelligent viewer has to pick up the details. And as in Elena, Leviathan too ends with squawking of a crow on the soundtrack, before the colorful and deep music of Philip Glass takes over for the finale.

Kolya's teenaged son Roma mopes over his stepmother's unethical actions: Zvyagintsev's
imagery of  a fossilized "Leviathan" is brought into perspective

Children and boys in particular played major roles in all the four Zvyagintsev feature films. In Elena and Leviathan, the young boys find alternate entertainment with their friends far away from home.  In Elena, the youngsters fight among themselves; in Leviathan, the youngsters are less boisterous and appear drugged/drunk, no longer fighting among themselves to achieve something. The boys gather in a broken-down unused church.  Zvyagintsev is evidently making a time-based sociological statement on Russian youth and the Russian Orthodox Church.  Young-boys-revolting-against-their-parents is a recurring theme for Zvyagintsev. In Leviathan, the son Roma is born from a first marriage of Kolya and his anger against his stepmother is understandable. When Dimitri is beaten up and threatened to be shot to death by the Mayor, Dimitri is asked if he has any thoughts for his daughter we never see. What Zvyagintsev shows us instead is a little girl on the train Dimitri is taking back to Moscow, possibly reminding Dimitri of his own.

In Leviathan, the wife is ambiguous embodying both the good and the evil, whom the
good Kolya forgives 

Wives in all Zvyagintsev’s films are interesting to study: some good, some evil, and some ambiguous in their actions. In Leviathan, the wife is ambiguous—we can only guess why she acted the way she did. She strays from the path of a good wife but chooses to return to her husband. In The Return, the viewer is never told why the father was absent for years. Zvyagintsev apparently believes that the jigsaw puzzles (a motif used in The Banishment) he presents in his films in varied ways can be completed by an intelligent viewer. He does not believe in spoon feeding his audience. Lilya, the wife in Leviathan, asks her lover Dimitri "Do you believe in God?" Evidently she does.

To end this review, it might be more than relevant to again quote from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan“He that is taken and put into prison or chains is not conquered, though overcome; for he is still an enemy.” The enigmatic shot of the live whale in the distance towards the final minutes of the film exemplifies this last Hobbes quote.

P.S. All the three preceding Zvyagintsev films--The Return, The Banishment, and Elena--have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. Leviathan is the best of the 10 top films of 2014 for the author and is one of top 15 films of the 21st Century for him. It has subsequently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Mr Zvyagintsev is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers.