There's a scene in Leviathan, the latest opus from Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev, where a group of friends go out shooting in the countryside. They use portraits of former Russian leaders, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, as target practice - when one asks if they have anyone a bit more modern, the other replies that they are waiting for them to gain a bit more 'historical perspective'.
It's clear who the elephant in the room is, or should I say the leviathan. Surprisingly given 25% of funding through the Russian Ministry of Culture, the film is a scathing tale of greed and corruption in Putin's Russia. Much more subtle than the punk-infused antics of Pussy Riot, the message delivered in this 140 minute epic is every bit as damning.
A modern reworking of the Book of Job, the film follows Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), a working-class Russian citizen who on first sight appears to have the good fortune of a beautiful house and a beautiful wife. But Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the town's mayor, is hell-bent on taking away his property as a prime piece of real estate, and even Kolya's old army buddy Dimitry (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a high flying Moscow lawyer, may be unable to stop him.
If the story sounds provincial, its given biblical portent by the sublime and intimidating landscape in which the movie takes place. Set in the beautifully bleak Kola Peninsula (now added to my list of alternative places in the world to visit), here cinematographer Mikhail Krichman frames the characters to look like tiny insignificant insects among the crashing waves and snowy mountains.
Out on the beach lies the gargantuan skeleton of a beached whale, but the true leviathan of the piece could be Putin, Russia, or even God himself. Certainly Vadim is portrayed as an incompetent drunken ogre, quick to anger when he doesn't get his way over who he claims are 'lesser people'. Russia, as the largest country on earth, is also a giant beast that outside of the big cities seems a wild and lawless wasteland.
But it's religion that ominously forms the backdrop of this land ruled by divine justice. While the religious Vadim confesses to his orthodox priest as a means of justifying his actions, Dimitry repeats throughout that as a lawyer he believes in only the facts. But whether the word of law or the word of God, these rules and regulations are shown as an oppressive force that are used by those in power to ruthlessly dominate those who are powerless.
That's not to say the picture is all doom and gloom. Zvyagintsev spends a great deal of time establishing his characters through their many warm, funny interactions, often while excessively inebriated. But if they take to the bottle as a form of escape, it is only because the sobering truth of their impossible situation is too much to bear.
A deeply pessimistic and ultimately heart-breaking watch, Leviathan is sure to cement Zyvagintsev's reputation as one of the shining lights of post-Soviet cinema. Just don't expect Putin, or Russia's Orthodox Church, to watch it anytime soon.
Leviathan will be released in UK cinemas nationwide from 7 November.