If you appreciate dark foreign films, speaking thematically, you get it all in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014): the sense of fatalism, quixotic determination fueled by indignation and vodka, the mockery of people hoping that this time the system will work for them, the self-destructiveness of resistance, misogyny, the insecurity of daily life, rapacious governments, collaborationist religion, family tragedy, personal betrayal, and nightmare bureaucracy.

The film is also visually dark, using an appropriately bleak palette to show the cold north of Russia, one of those landscapes that by itself suggests struggle and vulnerability.

In a derelict northern Russian fishing town, the corrupt mayor wants to use eminent domain to seize at a steep discount for his personal use a prime spot occupied by Kolya, a mechanic living on the edge both financially and psychologically. Like all tyrants, the mayor is helped by apparatchiks and goons.

Koloa’s stubborn streak, alcoholism, and idealistic insistence on fairness compound the problems imposed on him by the state. As David B. Levine has noted, heavy drinking in the film is about “cultural alcoholism, not a character issue.”

The land seizure stands symbolically for the rapacious acquisition of wealth by people in power after the fall of the USSR, but in the context of Russian literature Leviathan seems to be primarily about the human condition, as Dostoevsky understood it.

The court pronouncements are especially demoralizing, with their mocking veneer of justice and wisdom, their haste, their legalisms. Outside of the ruling circles, men have it bad, women have it worse, and good luck to the children.

I’ve been enjoying (if you know what I mean) Victor Serge novels about corruption, oppression and survival in early Soviet Russia, and not much seems to have changed except for the national flag.

The director’s Elena (2011) also impresses me, another film built around corruption and corner cutting in post-Soviet Russia. Elena ends ambiguously, with a fine sense of moral compromise being justified by necessity, maybe even made a quietly positive act of individual resistance.

Unless the subject matter or mood of despair puts you off, Leviathan is far too good to miss.

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