You don’t call a film Leviathan if you want it to be perceived as a gentle, intimate little art-house offering. You choose that name either to decorate an opulent SFX blockbuster—which Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film most certainly is not—or if you want to signal that you’re making a heavyweight statement, with lofty metaphysical connotations and with a heavyweight target in sight. That about fits the Russian director’s remarkable fourth feature. Leviathan certainly carries metaphysical resonance, sometimes explicitly invoked, sometimes alluded to in cinematography that conveys a stark impression of human isolation and vulnerability in the midst of indifferent nature; that won’t come as any surprise to admirers of Zvyagintsev’s 2003 debut The Return.

As for the film’s polemical dimension, its object is contemporary Russia—depicted as a realm of corruption, petty tyranny, and misery for the struggling powerless. A portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs conspicuously on the wall above the desk of a small-town despot; there’s a sly but cutting gag at Putin’s expense in the film’s most openly comic sequence, and a hard-to-miss glimpse of Pussy Riot graffiti in an extract of TV news footage. Even so, Leviathan received funding from Russia’s Ministry of Culture, and the film is the country’s official submission for the foreign-language Oscar.

This might suggest that filmmakers like Zvyagintsev have an easy ride, despite what we generally understand to be the situation of oppositional Russian artists. The reality is somewhat different. Zvyagintsev has necessarily been cautious in interviews (pointing out, for example, that the Russian president’s portrait is displayed as a matter of course in local government offices such as the one he shows). It is also known that Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky disapproves of Leviathansupposedly for the time-honored reason that Russian films should be upbeat and inspiring rather than pessimistic, which Leviathan undoubtedly is.

We should welcome Leviathan’s pessimism: it’s cause for celebration that Zvyagintsev has managed to make a feature this politically provocative and this artistically eloquent. One of the outstanding films of 2014, Leviathan lives up to its title: it’s a behemoth of intelligent contemporary cinema.

The setting is a rundown fishing community in northwest Russia, on the Barents Sea. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is an ex-soldier turned car repairman who lives in a large, ramshackle, but cozy house on a windswept coast with his teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and his young second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova, who played the cynical daughter in Zvyagintsev’s last film Elena). The town’s corrupt, self-serving mayor Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov) quite openly intends to appropriate Kolya’s house, prime real estate for speculation or perhaps for building a personal palace. To contest Shelevyat’s court order, Kolya has asked old army buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), now a hotshot Moscow lawyer, to come up and help him. It’s clear that the legal decks are stacked against Kolya. In an extraordinary courtroom scene, a female judge—soon revealed to be one of Shelevyat’s stooges—recites the facts of the case in a long, uninflected machine-gun delivery, making it clear that this law only speaks, but doesn’t listen.

Shelevyat—played mesmerizingly by Madyanov as a spoiled, overgrown, drunken baby—has the law and its enforcers in his pocket. A shot of the town square contains, in utterly matter-of-fact manner, a big black car parked with attendant goons, a little ominous detail that quietly tells how power is exercised here. Luckily, Dmitri is around to defend his friend; he simply has to mention to a spluttering Shelevyat his important connections in Moscow, prior to pointing out that he can easily discredit the mayor in the media, and it’s clear that this smooth-suited white knight has all the right weapons at his disposal. But Shelevyat is prepared to carry out his measures in the old brutal baronial way, and besides, Dmitri proves not to be entirely an ideal person for Kolya to have visiting.

In one magnificent, uproarious scene, the life of Kolya and his blue-collar circle proves to offer more space for joy and rebellion than we might think. It shows a birthday outing for a friend, who comes generously equipped with vodka and weaponry—and it’s a mark of Zvyagintsev’s and co-writer Oleg Negin’s light touch that the potent combination of Stolichnaya and Kalashnikovs yields satirical comedy rather than tragedy or horror (as they would surely have done in the hands of Russia’s late master of macabre bleakness, Aleksei Balabanov). Instead, after all the available bottles have been shot to pieces, the friend gets another bunch of targets out of his car: official portraits of Russian leaders including Lenin, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev. “Haven’t you got anyone more recent?” asks Kolya—to which his friend slyly answers, “Not enough historical perspective. Ripen them up on the wall for a bit.”

The film’s key theme appears to be political corruption, the consistent root of Kolya’s grief. He goes to the courtroom to lodge his appeal only to find the premises mysteriously deserted, so that there’s no way for him to officially submit it. When he attempts to voice his rage, with no one to listen, he’s clapped behind bars. It’s a situation we might conventionally think of as Kafka-esque, but here it harks back to blackly farcical depictions of Russian bureaucracy by Gogol and other 19th-century writers.

But there are two other strands to Kolya’s woes. One is personal: his apparent failings as a husband to the manifestly frustrated Lilya, and possibly also as a father to Roma, who’s none too ready to accept her as a mother. Weatherbeaten and terse (Serebryakov rather resembles Richard Harris at his early-Sixties craggiest), Kolya drinks too much and, it emerges, has a brutal side that contributes to his downfall.

The other strand is metaphysical. Like Zvyagintsev’s second feature, The Banishment (07), Leviathan wears its religious themes on its sleeve—but in a more direct, down-to-earth manner than that rather portentous, overtly Tarkovskian exercise. In Leviathan, the Russian Orthodox Church plays a prominent part, and a most worldly one; Shelevyat is hand in glove with the powerful local priest, who plies him with pious sayings and urges him to use his might to sort out his problems. This same priest is seen in a coda, preaching in a luxuriantly gilded church to congregants in fine coats and furs, who leave in a cortege of limos.

In contrast, there’s the somewhat Dostoevskian figure of poor priest Father Vassily. Challenged by an angry Kolya—“Where’s your merciful God Almighty?”—Vassily recites the famous Biblical passage of Job 41: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down its tongue with a rope?” The implication is that Kolya should submit with endurance and humility to his lot, like Job before the authority of God. But the film leaves some doubt about the precise identity of its Leviathan. For “Leviathan” also signifies the State in Hobbes’s work of the same name, the worldly body to which citizens must submit so as not to live in anarchy (“the war of all against all”). Yet the film makes it clear that the state that governs Kolya and his kind is a tarnished deity that seeks to grind down resistance. And it’s apparent too that Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is not just Russia, but humanity itself—potentially glorious, but shown here as debased and out of touch with true values, as it was in the director’s fine but tendentious Antonioni-esque Elena (11), in which TV, gyms, expensive cars and modernist architecture alike bespoke the death of the soul. 

Meanwhile, the metaphysical resonance of the Leviathan image emerges in two remarkable shots. One is the appearance of a whale skeleton encountered by Roma on the beach. If this is an image of God, then it’s of a martyred deity, brought brutally down to earth and a condition of mortal decay; we’re inevitably reminded that whales are perilously close to extinction, and the implication is that so too are God, and any kind of spiritual and human values, in the world depicted here.

The other Leviathan image is an understated shot of a whale surfacing in the sea, at some small distance offshore. I don’t know whether this is real, or a subtle CGI effect, but either way it’s a very striking shot, and it occurs just before a crucial turn in the narrative. The whale’s ominous appearance here marks all that follows with a deep, unresolvable scar of uncertainty—and everyone I know seems to have a different interpretation of what happens at this point. The image also emphasises the isolation of Lilya, the story’s most emotionally approachable character: she’s seen alone on two walks by the water, and working at a fish processing plant, where Leviathan, or his smaller relatives, really are drawn out with hooks, and then beheaded. Lilya, as much as her husband, emerges as the film’s protagonist, an exemplary sufferer herself. That’s partly testament to Lyadova’s strong, enigmatic, and at points powerfully sexual presence; exuding an earthy weariness, she looks rather like Mira Sorvino after a very heavy working day.

Leviathan is Zvyagintsev’s most successful film since The Return: impressive, and teasingly elusive as Elena was, it too obviously had an axe to grind about modern life and values. His follow-up hits a perfect balance between polemic and mystery, partly because of Mikhail Krichman’s extraordinary panoramic landscape photography. It’s part of the great enigma of cinematography that landscapes shot in the right way can bring a genuine metaphysical or spiritual dimension to dramas that might otherwise feel entirely earthbound, and the bleak beauty of Krichman’s widescreen perspectives bring Leviathan a genuinely numinous weight. The closing shots of sea, sky, and land powerfully but gnomically suggest impending apocalypse: you could hardly imagine a more foreboding ending, yet overall the film’s quiet authority makes for a strange euphoria.