Leviathan opens, fittingly enough, with a passage from the book of Job describing the beast that gives the film its name. One specific verse- “it makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment”- is the perfect description for Leviathan’s subject matter: a fishing vessel off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts. And this beautifully raw experimental documentary is, in essence, a human reflection of that Biblical monster, though some may be put off by its slow nature.
Using many small cameras, filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel capture work on the ship from every angle and perspective, from the nets to the on-board slaughter of fish to the ship’s bloody wake; one long shot even follows a seabird as it tries to climb into the holding box to scavenge. And while it’s gorgeously filmed, it’s not always gorgeous- the movie goes from a wonderful shot bobbing in and out of the water with the bow of the ship to one of the crew hacking the meat off of harvested rays.
And as for the crew, don’t go in expecting Deadliest Catch drama and interviews. There are no sit-downs with them, no shots of them breaking limbs or yelling at each other or discussing profit margins. Leviathan is the anti-Discovery Channel, a documentary that doesn’t seek a storyline out of what its subjects consider just a job; one fatigued crew member is filmed simply sitting at a table smoking a cigarette before nodding off. Because of this impersonal approach, however, some viewers may find themselves wanting to join him.
With no plot, no score and little-to-no dialogue, the film is about as hands off an observational documentary as you could get. But that’s the point. It’s impersonal because it’s conveying the idea that this isn’t simply a fishing vessel but a monstrous organism, complete with internal rhythm, feeding habits, and a following of scavengers.
Leviathan could be making an environmental point about the fishing industry- the ray slaughter scene is particularly hard to watch, and the film takes place in the old whaling grounds of Captain Ahab. But this is all part of an average trip for a fishing vessel, and the film makes no overt judgement on the crew’s actions; the experimental nature means it’s for the audience to decide.
Some may find it a slog; long shots and dizzying perspectives could put off viewers. But fans of other experimental documentaries like Baraka and the Qatsi trilogy, heck, even more conventional pieces like BBC’s Planet Earth, will find a lot to like here.
Leviathan will be at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre on Friday, March 15 at 4:30, and runs until March 21.