For Russian writer-director Zvyagintsev, whose 2003 debut The Return deeply impressed, this is feature number four, though only his second to be seen here outside festivals.
Set and shot in a village on the Barents Sea coast in the northeast corner of Russia, it is punctuated by jaw-dropping exterior scenes, their effect magnified by a remarkably restrained Philip Glass score.
In the opening and closing sequences, mountainous waves rake a coastline littered with rotting skeletons of boats.
But most of the drama is terrifyingly intimate. Its main character is Kolia (Serebryakov), a village mechanic who lives on the edge of the harbour with his beautiful wife, Lilia (Lyadova), and his teenage son, Roma, (an excellent Pokhodaev), who looks on his dad with equal parts hurt, rage and adoration.
The family faces sudden eviction from their home under a compulsory acquisition order initiated by local mayor Vadim (Madyanov), abetted by a grotesquely compliant judicial system. In an early scene, which might have been scripted by Kafka, and which will have a chilling echo at the film's end, a judge reads a finding dismissing Kolia's appeal in a high-speed gabbling monotone without so much as raising her head to look at him.
Kolia, however, thinks he has a trump card: an old army mate, Dimitri (Vdovichenkov), is now a handsome hot-shot Moscow lawyer who arrives with a dossier of dirt on the sleazy politician. Anyone who thinks this is going to turn out well hasn't been watching Russia in the Putin era.
Zvyagintsev draws on all sorts of material here to fashion a quasi-mythic story about man's battle against the state - or any larger force. The Book of Job, a 19th century German novella called Michael Kohlhaas and Thomas Hobbes' seminal 17th century treatise on statecraft all play a part, but the initial impulse was very down-to-earth: the 2004 story of a Colorado welder who went on a rampage with a bulldozer after losing a battle to save his home from developers.
Zvyagintsev's story plays out very differently from that one. The thread of grim fatalism is as unmistakably Russian as the idea that heavy vodka drinking and shooting make for a great family picnic. Tellingly, Kolia's state and legal oppressors are depicted as subservient in an alliance with the Orthodox Church that is way beyond unholy: the local bishop, a godfather to the venal, vodka-sodden mayor, is given the film's last word, a long speech about how truth is the only source of freedom.
Zvyagintsev's film won the screenwriting prize at Cannes and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, but was edged out for the Oscar by Pawlikowski's Ida. By any standards, it is a titanic achievement. Some of its symbolic reaches verge on the heavy-handed but it is certain to be one of the great films of the cinephile's year.
Cast: Aleksey Serebryakov, Roman Madyanov, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Yelena Lyadova, Sergey Pokhodaev
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Running time: 141 mins
Rating: M (violence, sexual references) In Russian with English subtitles
Verdict: Intimate epic is a titanic achievement