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Portraits of Lenin, Brezhnev and Gorbachev are hauled out for target practice in a decaying Russian fishing village along the Barents Sea coast. “Got anyone more current?” asks Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), an irascible but hard-working dimwit who operates an auto repair shop next to his home on the outskirts of town.

“It’s too early for the current ones,” his friend responds. “Not enough for historical perspective. Let them ripen up on the wall a bit.”

LEVIATHAN is, among many things, a step toward framing that historical perspective. The conspicuous visage of Vladimir Putin hangs over the desk of Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the town’s thuggish, venal mayor. Vadim covets Kolya’s land to build a new “communications center” and is in the latter legal stages of repossessing the property for a pittance.

Kolya enlists the services of Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a former army buddy and urbane Moscow attorney. Dmitri hopes to use a damning dossier on the mayor to blackmail him into increasing the purchase price. The scheme seems to have traction, until a shrewd, duplicitous local bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church reminds the lunkhead mayor of the axiom “might makes right.”

The film’s title evokes Thomas Hobbes’ treatise on social-contract theory. Indeed, director Andrey Zvyagintsev says his screenplay was also inspired by 16th-century merchant Hans Kohlhaas and Marvin Heemeyer, the muffler repair-shop owner who, enraged by a protracted zoning dispute, bulldozed through his Colorado town before killing himself in 2004.

However, the Book of Job is the film’s most obvious narrative fulcrum. Kolya lives with his disconsolate wife, Lilya, and his obstreperous teenage son from a previous marriage, Roma. During Kolya’s fight with city hall, an act of infidelity rips apart his already frayed family and provides his enemies with political ammunition. The result is a fatalistic fall.

The storytelling is needlessly inscrutable at times. The adultery appears suddenly, without buildup; another pivotal scene takes place off-camera for no productive reason. A key character simply disappears after being strong-armed by Vadim’s goons.

Leviathan contains few sympathetic figures among its vodka-swilling, morose, angry lot, motivated by varying degrees of avarice. But they can also be accurately viewed as victims of worldly circumstance. The film draws a connection between Russia’s oppressive communist past and its politically corrupt present, but its overarching allegory is a more universal human tragedy.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Serf & turf.”