By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Rating: R, Grade: A

I consider myself fortunate enough to have seen Andrey Zvyagintsev’s stunning drama “Leviathan” during its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it came as close as any film I’ve ever seen to approximating the epic narrative feel of a Biblical story translated into the modern era. By Biblical, I mean the harsh (tough love) world of the Old Testament – but I am breaking from the traditional referencing of the Biblical leviathan, which is described as a monstrous sea creature, a male serpent that takes on many of the properties we associate with dragons. That leviathan is so feared, seemingly even by God, that although He created both male and female versions of the creature, He killed the female and offered her flesh to His people during a celebration prior to the coming of the Messiah. During the Middle Ages, the leviathan became a symbol of the devil, the harbinger of chaos in the deep waters that threatened all of creation.

That is not the “leviathan” I feel Zvyagintsev’s portrays in his film. Instead, his thoroughly modern examination subtly transforms the creature from its devilish roots into a metaphor of the deep and unfathomable nature of God. The question becomes, is what we see and imagine as evil in the world nothing more than an omniscient being content to let the sometimes-dark political drama play itself out without comment or alteration?

It is unmistakable, though, to read “Leviathan” as drawing more direct inspiration from the original source material. The story of Everyman Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) takes place in a Russian coastal town, as he wages a losing battle against an innately corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov) and a bureaucratic system over the looming demolition of his home. Kolya appears to be a man of principle, a good and moral figure with a wife (Elena Lyadova) and teenaged son. Besides his home and small parcel of land, Kolya owns a car repair shop, an unassuming job and life that should never have drawn such attention from the powers that be.

Once the fight kicks off in earnest, Kolya solicits the aid of a friend in Moscow, Dmitriy Seleznyov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a former Army buddy who now happens to be an attorney of some renown. The initial plan of attack was to simply impress the local officials with his connections in order to halt the proceedings, but bringing in a heavy hitter just means that both sides must prepare for a far more entrenched battle with dirt being dug up and exposed all around and unforeseen consequences that will destroy any hope for peace.

Embedded in the escalating drama are moments of quiet beauty. Images of the bones of whales littering the shore recall the metaphoric leviathans of old, and we are led to make comparisons between those creatures and the harsh Russian political system (and very contemporary allusions to Putin). But as the interpersonal dynamics unspool, to my mind, it was less about one man butting heads with a big bad government and moreso a cautionary tale about a man who believes he is doing what is right facing off against an indifference that is all-encompassing.

One of this year’s Best Foreign Language Film nominees and the film I etched into the top spot of my annual Top Ten list almost as soon as I was able to walk out of the theater, “Leviathan” is far superior to either Darren Aronofsky’s bleakly artful retelling of the flood (“Noah”) or Ridley Scott’s computer generated rendering of the power struggle between Moses and Ramses, because it captures the thoroughly human impulse to rage and shake your fist in the face of the inevitable.

Let every other critic out there tell you “Leviathan” documents the abuses of an oppressive state, but trust me when I say they are dead wrong. There are no monsters or devils – either from epic stories or on the global political scene that can match the supremacy of our fear of utter hopelessness. This story is all about an angry God turning his back on humanity to prove a point only the omniscient can understand.