One of the final contenders for the Palme d’Or, and one of the strongest, Andrei Zviaguintsev’s Leviathan is a vodka-drenched Russian tragedy of one man pitched against the might of a corrupt and unstoppable state.

Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov) is a handsome mechanic living in his charming wooden house with his beautiful young wife Lilya (Elena Liadova) and his son, Roma (Serguei Pokhodaev), from a previous marriage. Kolia goes up against the local mayor Vadim (Roman Maianov) who wants his bit of prime real estate to build a fancy palace. Hotheaded Kolia is not about to go down without a fight, so he brings in ex-army buddy Dmitri (Vladiimir Vdovitchenkov) who is now a hot-shot lawyer in Moscow. It soon transpires that Dmitri has come to this backwater town for reasons other than the court case.

This film is often about trios, whether it is the family group, the complex adult relationships or the larger theme of the individual, the Church and the state. There are lots of visual references to this theme, but there are also many thematic¬† parallels running through Leviathan, linking events and the human condition. We see the derelict old church used as a meeting place for local youths set against the new church, separated from the town by a small causeway, with the churchgoers arriving in a variety of luxury vehicles. The religion that Communism couldn’t demolish has risen stronger, brighter and richer. It is clear that the High Church has made its own pact in order to thrive again.

Set in the dramatic and beautiful landscape of the Barents Sea in northern Russia, the Leviathan of the title is represented by the carcasses of whales washed up on the shore, and in one significant scene we see a live whale basking off the coast. But there are plenty of other Leviathans in this movie, most notably the Russian government, which is viewed as intractable, corrupt and willing make a deal with the Devil to achieve its aims. In a wonderful scene the men are having a shooting competition and run out of bottles, Pacha (Alexei Rozine), the birthday boy, who has brought an AK automatic rifle to the picnic, unwraps a set of portraits of previous Russian leaders to use as targets. There are no recent leaders, because Pacha states they need to wait for a bit of “historical perspective”. However, Zviaguintsev is not afraid of giving his perspective of those leaders right now, for this is a withering and damning look at the power of the Church and the government. Kolia doesn’t stand a chance of winning, despite his feisty attempt. His inevitable defeat is a chronicle of a tragedy foretold – there is no Hollywood happy ending here.

With Leviathan Zviaguintsev continues the great Russian tragedy tradition. The cast is superb, Maianov in particular. The sweeping seascapes and beauty of the landscape the director captures are a hymn to this troubled and troubling country.