EIFF 2013: 'Leviathan' review

★★★★★
An often overwhelming oceanic opus, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's Leviathan (2012) is a sublimely sensory experience like no other. One of the most unique, demanding and hypnotic films to feature at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival, this exceptional maritime mood-piece (documentary is too small a box by far) serves as an eye-opening, viscerally prodigious insight into the North Atlantic fishing industry. Crashing waves, churning gears and the gutting of sea life make up the cacophony of noises that complement this completely immersive voyage, drowning its audience beneath the briny black surface.

Opening in the dead of night, Leviathan starts as it means to go on, disorientating us before we're thrust on deck in the pouring rain to observe in the precarious work of deep-sea fishermen. On board this floating slaughterhouse, we become very much part of the vessel as it mows across the water, harvesting its riches with neither feeling nor mercy. Here we witness mankind not only taming the tempestuous waves; we also watch it being pulled apart bit by bit as it fights frantically to topple the men and their trawler into the abyss. This is a man versus nature documentary like no other, with metal, flesh and seawater crashing relentlessly together as battle ensues.

Remarkably, we know more about space than we do about the ocean depths, arguably our planet's last true wilderness. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel (with help from modern technology) play on this fear of the unknown, galvanising Leviathan with sci-fi-like qualities; the depicted ship and crew transformed into something vaguely alien, an earthbound spacecraft adrift in the deep space of the unforgiving Atlantic. Indeed, this is neither a conventional film nor even precisely a simple documentary piece, but a voyage of timeless appeal - a fantastical experience first and foremost, and one that demands to be savoured for pushing visual art, cinematic realism and factual filmmaking to the outer reaches of their capabilities.

Leviathan's omnipresent approach to cinematography was interestingly achieved using dozens of durable, miniature cameras (often utilised by extreme sports enthusiasts) fixed in and around every conceivable nook and cranny of the trawler: be it the starboard exterior, the mast or a fisherman's helmet. The jaw-dropping results offer up a chaotic mosaic that captures the constant sway and swell of the sea, leaving us cradled within the undulating, shifting expanse that stretches across our world, north to south, east to west.

At one point, a single beer can washes up on the ship's deck, hidden amongst a cluster of recently caught fish. It's the only attempt the film makes at portraying man's ecological effect on his watery environs (especially its dwindling fish stocks). Yet, as the film's epilogue explains, Leviathan was made first as a cinematic eulogy for those men who risk their lives on a daily basis to farm the ocean floor. Frequently overwhelming, this pilgrimage into the perilous clutches of the North Atlantic may well find itself short on equals.

The 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 19-30 June, 2013. For more of our EIFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble

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