Cast: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Roman Madyanov
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Awards: Nominated for an Oscar, won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film
Kolya, a gruff, but essentially decent man, lives with his pretty young wife and teenage son from a previous marriage, in a small fishing village on the Barents Sea. A hard-headed and outspoken auto mechanic, Kolya is pragmatic enough to accept the small favours he has to do for local office bearers, such as fixing the traffic chief’s car for free. All things considered the small family seems to enjoy a fairly happy existence slightly marred by his son’s unprovoked antipathy towards his stepmother.
Events take a turn for the worse though when the town’s corrupt mayor uses his influence to expropriate the land on which Kolya had built his house and auto repair shop. The mayor is beholden to greater powers who would like to develop the waterfront property into tourist accommodation and will stop at nothing to remove Kolya and his family. At his wits’ end, Kolya ropes in an old army buddy, Dmitriy, who had become a well connected lawyer in Moscow.
At first it seems like the calm and collected Dmitriy has things well under control, and is about to turn the tables on the ruthless mayor. However, betrayals both personal and professional suddenly threaten to unravel the very fabric of Kolya’s life. He descends into a pit of vodka fuelled despair when his wife disappears after he loses his appeal against the expropriation of his property. The only solace that a passing priest has to offer the inebriated Kolya, is to quote a passage from the Bible:
“Can you pull in the leviathan with a fish hook or tie down his tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he keep begging you for mercy? Will he speak to you with gentle words?
Will he make an agreement with you for you to take him as your slave for life?”
The quote strengthens the film’s allegorical ties to the trials and tribulations of the Biblical Job, a good man who was beset by terrible disasters that took away everything that he held dear. It is also a conscious dig at the Russian Orthodox church which has been guilty on more than one occasion of aligning itself with the reigning political power, whilst preaching blind acceptance of their fate to the disenfranchised masses.
It would be lazy to describe this thought provoking film as just another depressing pastiche of a modern Russia beset by venal politicians and characterized by the stoicism of its long-suffering citizens.
Indeed, it does have the requisite visual melancholia of a remote Russian town in decay, with peeling clapboard houses and weeds sprouting in parking lots, all of which is set against the stark beauty of the Arctic landscape. Yet, despite the harshness of the natural surroundings and the run-down economy, there are no cheap caricatures in the film. Even the odious mayor shows glimpses of doubt about his actions and has to strengthen his resolve with regular sips from an omnipresent hip flask.
Russian cinema, like its literature has always had the uncanny ability to take small, localised events far removed from the average viewer’s experience and use them to throw an insightful light upon universal themes that affect us all. This film continues that proud tradition with an examination of how much of what fate throws at each of us we can deal with. It masterfully juxtaposes the tyranny of a corrupt state with the sometimes cruelly capricious nature of love and loyalty. Both equally capable of turning into the titular sea monster that would devour us despite our best efforts.