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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Sounds Awful Fishy
by Donald Levit

An original and a daring documentary, Leviathan is “unlike anything seen before -- a purely visceral cinematic experience,” which, however, is far from saying that audiences will warm to it.

It shares some traits with co-director Véréna Paravel’s Foreign Parts, and even more with her co-director Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass (done with his wife and fellow Harvard anthropologist-ethnologist Ilisa Barbash). This current one, too, fits the “singular anthropological excavation” label with social commentary implied, but, filmed ad hoc and at night, it is too much of a challenge for the eye while its heightened sounds grate on the ear.

Awarded the critics FIPRESCI prize at Locarno and selected for the Toronto and New York film festivals, the just shy of an hour-and-a-half non-fiction has a sly playful side, mostly confined to late frames and end-credits, but is essentially ship and fishermen and machines, sea, fish in their element or flopping and dying out of it, and gulls.

Angles, distances (including extreme close-ups), focus, lens flare, upside-downs and lots of darkness around limited bright colors, all are random, though there has been co-selection and -editing by the co-directors and also -photographers and –producers.

There is no narration whatsoever, ditto subtitles, to indicate where-when-who. Outside sources say “off New England,” which matters not a jot, for the action is universal and immemorial, wherever men go down to the sea in ships. Why men do this is another matter and is not considered, though the pictured discomfort, danger and boredom are not sufficient to dissuade them. Nor, as with Michael Burton’s night rider cowpokes on short pay, can it be for the money on bucking hulls or horses.

For landlubbers this opens like a horror flick, ink-black screen with here and there a fleeting shape floating beyond recognition, backed by equally unidentifiable screechings, until a long several minutes later there is enough distance and light to make out a disorienting diagonal dawn horizon, parts of a metal ship at sea and its machinery and chains and cranes, and parts of men in colored slickers and gloves.

Waterproofed cameras have been fastened to these men and ships, abovedecks and along the hull and under the waterline. As released, the film is a series of human-voice-silent sections but the voice of many waters, depicting the activities of these crew; or of their prey underwater or massed in colorful synthetic nets or agonizing pop-eyed in air or being sliced apart (and turning one off from eating seafood); or of seabirds like bright angels or Escher figures or, in what seems cinema artiness, upside-down.

Some of these sections repeat the opening gambit of impossibility to pin down until after a while; many of them go on too long, even if that might be intended to image the mind-numbing real repetitiveness of what myth and culture have romanticized.

There is no doubt that the result should correct any tendency to glamorize the fisherman and his lot as heroes who defy all à la The Perfect Storm. Nor is it wide-eyed paean to the beauty and power of Nature but, rather, just a picture of it and the men who, for whatever reason, choose to earn a living harvesting the race’s food from that decreasing plenty.

Captains Courageous, The Sea Wolf, Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea and any other even mildly good sea tale, narrative or not, need a story thread beyond men wordlessly catching, gutting and beheading fish. A very little of Leviathan goes a long way, one gets the point, and essentially what are repetitions go overboard and for too many frames. How long should one observe two men bending over something unseen, their handwork making unidentified clacks as they may or may not be opening and emptying abalone shells?

(Released by Cinema Guild; not rated by MPAA.)

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