Leviathan (The Cinema Guild, NR)

film leviathan_smLeviathan frequently feels like a series of paintings come to life—and that’s a compliment.




film leviathan

Leviathan begins like a horror movie: After a quotation from the always-cheerful Book of Job is presented on a black screen, you are plunged into a dimly lit scene of intense, noisy action replete with clanking chains, ominous hooks, and grasping hands.

Gradually, as the camera pulls away from the extreme close-ups that open the film, you come to realize that you are not in the torture chamber of a medieval dungeon, but on a modern fishing vessel at sea. “Gradually” is the key word, as directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel let the images and ambient sound do all the work, without explanatory narration or any other attempt to provide context to the experience provided by this film.

This approach means that you need a lot of patience to enjoy what Leviathan has to offer—even more than was required to appreciate the 2009 film Sweetgrass, on which Castaing-Taylor served as an editor and uncredited co-director. Both were produced in conjunction with the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, and Leviathan in particular has more than a little feel of being an academic experiment in how far the directors could go in making a film that uses everything every tool in the cinematic arsenal except conventional narration.

Having said that, Leviathan is one of the most beautiful documentaries I’ve ever seen, offering up an amazing success of images captured with small, mobile cameras. The absence of narration allows Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, both of who also served as cinematographers, to concentrate on visuals and sound, the latter designed by Ernst Karel, who also worked on Sweetgrass. The result is an immersive experience: Rather than being taught a lesson or being rallied to a cause, Leviathan offers you the opportunity to leave your ordinary world for 87 minutes and plug yourself into the world of a fishing crew, a world that thankfully has its moments of peace as well as intense action and brutality.

Leviathan frequently feels like a series of paintings come to life. That’s not a criticism but a compliment, because, like all good art, it encourages you to look more closely at your world, seeing clearly the ordinary objects that surround you rather habitually overlooking them because, well, they’re just so ordinary. This experience alone is worth the price of admission, although if you simply can’t enjoy a film without a conventional narrative, Leviathan is probably not for you.

Even more than Sweetgrass, Leviathan recalls the Italian documentary The Castle (Il Castello), in which Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti present without commentary scenes from behind the “Authorized Personnel Only” doors of Milan’s Malpensa Airport. Although certainly not to everyone’s taste, both films are absorbing precisely because they decline to explain what is being presented on screen, and both have a way of making the ordinary seem positively otherworldly. | Sarah Boslaugh

Leviathan will be screened at 7:30 p.m. on May 17, 18, and 19 at Webster University’s Moore Auditorium, Webster Hall, 470 E. Lockwood Ave. in Webster Groves. Admission is $6 for the general public; $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools; $4 for Webster University faculty and staff; and free for Webster students with proper ID. For more information, including directions and the complete Film Series calendar, visit http://www2.webster.edu/filmseries/current.html.

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