Though the documentary Leviathan unfolds on a fishing vessel on the tumultuous high seas, this is far from the cinematic version of “the Deadliest Catch.” Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel have created a constantly shifting, entrancing piece of abstract art. The media they use just happens to be mobile cameras, an 80-foot fishing vessel and its inhabitants going about their work with the slimy creatures of the deep, mostly set against a dark pre-dawn, cloudy morning.
Leviathan features little bias in its depiction of its giant shipping vessel off the coast of New England, the territory where Herman Melville spun his famous tale of that other leviathan Moby Dick. But the elusive, great white whale is a mere ghost of ancient history in this film whose narrative the directors allow to flow as wild and freely as the ocean waves that surround the ship’s hull. The film has no voice-overs or interviews across its hour-and-a-half run time. The only narrative conceit arrives early on, when the filmmakers open their movie with quotations from the Book of Job 41, which clearly inspired the film’s title (read it here).
Beyond the biblical reference, the directors seem to say something rather ambivalent about harvesting the ocean’s sea life, though they employ some rather breathtaking imagery. With specially designed cameras that hang from masts and roll around on the ship’s deck, the pictures captured by these cameras are born from the same randomness as the nature that created life in the primordial pool of the ocean. Sometimes it takes a while for scenes to take shape because you just do not know what you’re looking at. The human factor of control from the directors only comes in the selection of edits and how they decide to string the images together over lengthy scenes. The associative cuts arrive slow and languorous. They sometimes feel like harsh shifts, as scenes change from exterior to interior or aerial to submerged. But sometimes the scenes feel so abstract and mesmerizing that they melt almost imperceptibly from the ship’s deck to below the waves.
The key to getting these scenes under the viewer’s skin come from the long, if ever-swaying, shots. It allows the viewer to engage on a level that can feel as entrancing as the ebb and flow of the ocean itself. Besides the cuts in the footage, the directors do not manipulate the scenes at all. In fact, they never seem to use a view-finder, as impossible angles come from the randomness of letting chance direct these mobile cameras. Some viewers might find themselves feeling seasick with not only the motion inside the frame but also the close-ups of the bloody prepping of the dead or dying fish. The directors allow their mobile cameras to roll around the ship’s deck with fish carcasses, giving you the POV of the lamentable sea critters, as you stare into the gray eyes of the beheaded remains left on deck after a harvest.
In a cinematic world that rewards concrete narratives, some may feel frustrated by Leviathan, but if you arrive with an open mind and a curiosity for some of the most unique views of a fishing crew in action, you may find yourself properly riveted. The filmmakers do not make it easy, though. At one point they place a camera in the ship’s mess hall where one exhausted fisherman gradually dozes off to a TV showing “The Deadliest Catch.” The camera lingers only on his face as his eyelids gradually begin to fall to a voice-over creating drama for the unseen images of the Discovery Channel’s “reality” show. By isolating the voice-over narrator from the TV show, the filmmakers call attention to how manipulative shows like that feel compared to the purist quality of Leviathan. There’s a cut to a couple of commercials on the TV, including one about constipation, and then a return to the show’s over-the-top drama, but by then, the fisherman has checked out. It’s a witty little statement against the stagey quality of so-called reality TV and the superficiality of narratives. Leviathan is about the visceral, and you can practically smell the grotesque oozing off the screen.
But beyond the gruesome quality of the images of the reaping of sea life, the film also presents many scenes of awe-inspiring beauty. Cameras seem to somehow even make it below fishing nets as they are hauled up to the surface. Starfish trickle down and past the lenses, like some surreal interstellar trip. Seagulls also harvest fish, and the cameras do not forget to capture those creatures in action alongside the men at work, creating some amazing shots of the birds fluttering for as close a view as you could ever imagine. The images throughout Leviathan will indeed hypnotize those open to film beyond literal interpretation, all the way until its final frame, beyond the closing credits, which does not forget to acknowledge the participation of the sea creatures and the moon, in addition to the fishermen.
Leviathan runs 87 minutes and is not rated (expect some close-up fresh catch prep). It opened in South Florida at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, during which an early version of this review first ran. Leviathan begins a limited engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, April 19, and plays there for only three days through Sunday, April 21. It then opens in Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso, in Fort Lauderdale on Friday, April 26, where it will play four days only through May 2. It may also be playing elsewhere nationwide; visit the movie’s homepage to see other screening dates.