Films To See In January: Leviathan; Ida; Two Days, One Night

As awards season looms, with its predictable bows to prestige and heritage movies, three reasons to venture down the road less traveled by.

Leviathan has been receiving messianic reviews since its premiere at Cannes last year, where it won the Best Screenplay award, and by the end of its two-and-a-half-some hours it’s easy to see why. I have an undeveloped theory that so-called “foreign” films do well in direct proportion to their correspondence with national stereotypes. With a land dispute, a visiting lawyer from Moscow, sublime landscapes, political corruption, and titanic quantities of vodka on display, you could say that Russia’s submission to the 87th Annual Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film ticks all the boxes. But Leviathan, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, is also a serious film of grand scope and ambition that deserves to be seen both in and out of the context of Putin’s Russia.

At the outset, Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) is locked in a dense legal battle against local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) over a plot of land his family has lived on for generations. Eventually shanghaied out of the property by corrupt officials, and cuckolded by the lawyer friend (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) he’d called on to help him, Kolya finds himself roundly assailed by hostile forces. The film’s title refers us both to Hobbes and to Job, as Kolya wrestles with a state that neglects the rights of both him and his family, and events take an unforeseen and tragic turn.

As one character observes early in the film, “Man is the most dangerous animal.” Hard to disagree for the most part, as Zvyagintsev’s characters down their vodkas and wrestle continuously and bitterly with one another. On a macro level, too, as Putin’s portrait gazes over the shoulder of the corrupt Vadim; it’s no surprise that the film has not been received well by officialdom in Russia. But Leviathan isn’t (entirely) social realism; rather its template seems to be classical tragedy. Characters’ fates are determined by flaws (the usual kind: romantic, honorable, suicidal) that give the plot an awful air of post-hoc inevitability. The priests who visit Vadim and Kolya add a strange medieval flavor to the mix. A religious triptych glimpsed on the dashboard of a car is obscenely mirrored by the topless models taped a few inches to the right; we are in a world of fallen idols, conflicting orders. With its bookending montages of epic Russian scenery, an austere bit of Philip Glass on the soundtrack, and Zvyagintsev’s occasional and sly humor, Leviathan is a deeply strange, rich, fabulous film.

Leviathan is playing at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, is Poland’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, and, like Leviathan, has already been longlisted. Set in Poland in 1961, it’s the tale of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), an orphan raised in a convent who’s on the verge of taking her vows when she discovers a family secret that gives her pause. Leaving the convent behind, the film follows Anna and her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) on a road trip to discover the fate of Anna’s parents.

Pawlikowski’s beautiful film has the directness of a short story. It’s simple but affecting stuff, with soulful performances from both Agatas. They’re a typical odd couple — the Catholic and the Communist; the innocent and the cynic — and the development of their relationship follows the template of the classical road movie. But the film is acted and written with such subtlety and tendresse that this all feels new. (Our young novice’s romance with a handsome jazz saxophonist, played by Dawid Ogrodnik, will make you burst.) As with many a great short story, there are some ugly revelations. What we discover — in flashes at first; later by full exhumation — is an affront to the notion that the truth will set you free. The hidden trauma at the movie’s center changes everything.

Ida is certainly the most formally arresting and visually beautiful of the three films here reviewed. Pawlikowski frames most of his shots in such a way that empty space often fills the top half or two-thirds of the screen. Whether this is a metaphor for the mystery surrounding Anna’s past or a cinematic suggestion of her humility in the face of the divine is perhaps immaterial to an appreciation of the artistry Pawlikowski brings to his compositions. The black and white photography, by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, is sharp and chilly; diamantine almost. It is a film that nears perfection in its execution.

Ida is currently streaming on Netflix.

Two Days, One Night is the latest in an extraordinary run of masterpieces by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne that includes The Son (2002), the Palme d’Or-winning The Child (2005) and The Kid with a Bike (2011). As in previous films, the premise is simple. Sandra (Marion Cotillard, just named Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle), a woman about to return to work after a bout of depression, discovers that she faces redundancy if she cannot persuade her colleagues to choose her over a thousand-euro bonus. During the course of a weekend, she and her husband (Fabrizio Rongione) attempt to sway a simple majority to vote for Sandra to keep her job. With each character we meet, we come to see her predicament in a different light. The sometimes harsh social conditions of Seraing, in Belgium, where the Dardennes’ films are usually set, provide the context for encounters that are sometimes violent, sometimes profoundly moving.

Cotillard, speaking at the IFC Center on Sunday night, revealed that many of the movie’s scenes, all shot in a single take to preserve complete dramatic integrity, were filmed a hundred times or more. With each take, she suggested, the Dardennes were searching for a specific rhythm. This, I would argue, is where their genius lies — in their ability to choreograph scenes of simple, low-key naturalism that nevertheless carry a dramatic weight and intensity comparable to opera or melodrama. So it is that in a performance as subtle as her star-making turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose was extravagant, Cotillard is just as extraordinary. I have rarely felt such compassion for an onscreen character as I felt for Sandra; it is a perfectly calibrated performance.

You can catch Two Days, One Night at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

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