'Leviathan' And 'Two Days' Look For Oscar Gold The week between Christmas and the new year often delivers Oscar hopefuls to our screens; NPR's Bob Mondello praises two foreign films that grapple with social issues through the lens of family.
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'Leviathan' And 'Two Days' Look For Oscar Gold

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'Leviathan' And 'Two Days' Look For Oscar Gold

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'Leviathan' And 'Two Days' Look For Oscar Gold

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, stops in Belgium and Russia, courtesy of a couple of films. They're both Oscar hopefuls. The one from Russia is "Leviathan," and the Belgian moving is "Two Days, One Night." Our critic, Bob Mondello, says both pictures tackle social issues by concentrating on family.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: A phone rings at the start of "Two Days, One Night," waking up Sandra with bad news about her job. She'd been sidelined by illness. Now, just as she's ready to come back to the assembly line, the Belgian factory she works at has offered its employees a choice. They can have a year-end bonus or Sandra can return to her job - their bonus, her job, their vote. Of 16 employees, 14 have voted for the bonus.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT")

MARION COTILLARD: (Speaking French).

MONDELLO: You mustn't cry, she tells herself. And there is one ray of hope. Because a foreman influenced the vote unfairly, management has scheduled a second vote on Monday. So Sandra has the rest of the weekend, two days and one night, to round up support. As she visits her coworkers at home, her dilemma, which is really their shared dilemma, is clear. In an economic downturn, everyone needs the money. Some turn her down flat. Others are more sympathetic. One burst into tears the moment Sandra broaches the subject, and begs her forgiveness for voting in his own self-interest.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Speaking French).

MONDELLO: The awkwardness, the humiliation and the central unfairness of the position these folks have been put in is what filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are exploring in "Two Days, One Night," a slice of pressurized, middle-class life that they've so real it feels a bit like a documentary. And that's despite the fact that, for the first time, the filmmakers are working with a major star - Marion Cotillard, who's previously played Edith Piaf and a glamorous Batman nemesis, but who, here, more or less disappears into mousey, insecure Sandra - Sandra, who is stronger than she realizes, but who is in a really tense spot for every minute of those two days, one night. The Russian film "Leviathan" is also about an individual bucking a system, but you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's really about vodka. The plot centers on a hot-tempered mechanic named Kolya who consumes enormous amounts of that most-Russian of spirits, even when things are going well. And when we meet him, things are not going well. He's about to lose his waterfront home in a land dispute with the town's crooked mayor. A hotshot lawyer buddy he's called in from Moscow has a plan involving blackmail, but the two of them are three sheets to the wind when the equally-soused mayor shows up with his goons.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEVIATHAN")

ROMAN MADYANOV: (As Vadim, speaking Russian).

ALEKSEY SEREBRYAKOV: (As Kolya, speaking Russian).

MADYANOV: (As Vadim, speaking Russian).

MONDELLO: Threats, insults, bullying - "Leviathan" is structured as an intimate suspense story with a Job-like hero, on whom all sorts of hell will be visited by an uncaring state. But it's also a dark, social satire of a Russian society that's plagued by the same bureaucracy, corruption and pretense that were mocked by Chekhov and Gogol a century ago. Scenes that are about to turn catastrophic for Kolya often begin with flat-out comedy - a birthday picnic, for instance, where alcohol will mix bad with machismo, starts with Kolya's friends using framed photos for target practice - photos of Lenin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev. When Kolya asks if they have anyone more recent, nobody says Vladimir Putin, but the implication is clear. He's told the newer guy should ripen on the walls a bit. All this is heading to a very dark place for Kolya. When things get about as bad as they can, he drunkenly asks a local priest whether having faith could turn things around for him. The priest quotes a line from the book of Job. Can you pull in Leviathan with a fish hook? But Kolya's not in the mood for biblical riddles, and filmmakers are saving the most caustic observations about the church for later. The state, meanwhile, remains implacable, dominating a landscape of visual mastery and enormous sadness. I'm Bob Mondello.

SIEGEL: Finally, this hour, I want to take a second to say thank you to our fill-in host this week, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro or, as we call her, Lulu. This time of year, a lot of people with normal jobs take vacations, but the news goes on and so do we. And we're able to do it this week because of you. Thanks. It was great to have you in the studio this week.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was absolutely great to be here. The highlight, I have to say, was seeing you in a cowboy hat. It is a good look for you, I recommend it highly.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) And where are you off to next?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm off to sunny Brazil. It is summer in Brazil - the southern hemisphere. I'm leaving you all in the winter wonderland.

SIEGEL: OK. We'll be listening for your reports from there, and, again, happy New Year. Thanks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Happy New Year.

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