Harvard University anthropologists Lucien Castaing-Taylor ("Sweetgrass") and Véréna Paravel ("Foreign Parts") take a one-of-a-kind look at a New Bedford groundfish trawler with cameras from birds' eye views to beneath the waves from which they scavenge. On deck, the crew haul in nets and process their catch but the filmmakers have larger ideas than commercial fishing in mind as they equate this boat with "Leviathan."
Like last year's "Bestiaire" with more camera motion due to the pitching of the platform and the roil of the sea, "Leviathan" isn't so much a documentary as a series of artfully presented observations which challenge the way we see things. At times, in fact, "Leviathan" almost made me see things which were not there. For those who cannot abide 'art films,' the experimental nature of this work may be a turn off, but the film really is a work of art, one which just may have you contemplating the nature of life on earth.
Beginning with a passage from the Book of Job certainly sets the stage. At first, we seem to be in pitch black, the clanging of equipment the only sound before we see a glimpse of dawn on a horizon pitched sideways. There are whitecaps and white birds, ghostly in the gloom. Nets are hauled in, bulging with fish, their faces framed by squares of rope, hopeless. We are on the deck floor as they're released, flopping and gasping and sloshing to and fro.
One would think that a film shot aboard a trawler's predominant color would be blue, but it is red. There is blood, yes, but also red in the sky and the faces of the men who work. One horrific stretch features two men slicing the wings off of skates, then tossing the bodies aside. Lone fish heads achieve poignancy. We see the refuse pouring off the deck, the ship purging itself of gore. Underwater, there is what appears to be a shower of red stars. As the camera peaks above the surface, there is an Escheresque configuration of birds in the sky. The prow of the boat, slicing through the waves, suggests the Leviathan as a metaphor for earth, a neverending journey of labor and death and those that scavenge at its edges. One six minute scene has us watch a man watching television ('The Deadliest Catch?'), struggling to stay awake, ultimately succumbing to exhaustion. Is he the master of his dominion or its slave?
There is no dialogue, although we do hear brief snippets of talk. The sound has been designed to reinforce the nightmarish quality of the images with the low hum of equipment, gurgling of the sea, wind and the voices that it snatches away.
I had a funny feeling when “Leviathan” began with a quote from Job (“He maketh the sea…” and all that) that could not be read easily in its pretentious, Gothic script. Then the film starts with the camera recording many unintelligible close up shots that we presume is taking place on a fishing boat. After all, the film is about the North Atlantic fishing industry, is it not? That is what IMDB, Allmovie and others say it is in their synopsis. But, that is not what I saw.
What I did see cannot just be called pretentious; though it is that from start to finish (the same unreadable Gothic script is used for the credits, too). It is also, aside from some remarkably creative photography, boring. 86 minutes of my time were spent watching nets being hauled up and emptied (in close up, for 10 or so minutes); fish heads being discarded to be swept back into the sea (also in close up and also for multiple minutes); a seagull eating fish gut scraps (in close up, especially the bird’s butt, for three minutes), a crewman taking a shower (two minutes); and, a guy sitting in the break room watching an unseen TV playing “Most Dangerous Catch” while smoking a cigarette and tries to stay awake (a full six minutes).
With these and many more cinema-verite style shots, there is very little time (if any) spent on actually teaching me anything at all about the hard life of a North Atlantic fisherman. That is what a documentary on the North Atlantic fishermen should do – teach and enlighten. Documentary film newcomers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena, he from the PBS series “POV,” need to actually watch a documentary before they try to concoct another that has nothing to say and wasted nearly 90 minutes of my life. The “Leviathan” makers have no right to call this a documentary. You might call it a tonal poem, but probably will not. I give it a D-.
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