‘Leviathan’ takes viewers on mind-bending voyage

In beginning this film about a fishing trawler, the makers of “Leviathan” have included a quote from the book of Job that describes the Leviathan’s power.

They could easily have opted for another biblical source, Jonah. Because for the running time of this film, we feel as though we have been swallowed inside the belly of a whale.

The perch is not cozy. “Leviathan” is a disorienting experience, a kind of audio-visual sensory spell that (for much of its running time) is literally immersive. It somehow feels more like a museum installation than a movie.

We’ve grown accustomed to a kind of documentary that shows us a system in a conventional way. We have a narrator or host, we have interviews, we have photography that shows us how things work.

“Leviathan” takes the opposite approach, with a vengeance. Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel have utilized the durability and size of small digital cameras, and placed them all around a fishing boat moving through the North Atlantic off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

All around: on the helmets of fishermen, in sloshing bins holding fish, on the side of the boat as it dips and rises through the dark water. Most shots go on for a long time, playing out the rhythms of whatever we’re watching at that moment: men hauling up a swollen net full of fish and spilling them on the deck, or guys cracking open scallop shells to slice the meat inside.

And, in the movie’s most human moment, the sight of a fisherman at the mess table, fighting to stay awake as he watches (of all things) a reality TV show about fishing in dangerous waters.

Castaing-Taylor previously co-directed the marvelous “Sweetgrass,” but this film doesn’t have that movie’s irresistible arc of a journey, or its people (we can barely understand more than a phrase or two of spoken words here, and we have little sense of the folks on the boat). Fish, too, are a little shy in the charm department.

It’s hard to characterize “Leviathan” as a movie in the ordinary sense. It is some kind of experience, however, and a sometimes astonishing one, with its dark nighttime scenes that become blurs of light and murk.

The trawler becomes a hellish waterworld full of bug-eyed monsters. (Really they’re fish seen in extreme close-up.)

The film is also immersive as an audio experience, with crazy underwater sounds and a constant rush of liquid noise. At a certain point it becomes an abstract series of sights and sounds, certainly not everybody’s definition of a Friday night’s entertainment, but a frequently mind-bending trip.

“Leviathan” (3 stars)

A mind-bending documentary that feels more like a museum installation, an audio-visual sensory experience that explores a fishing trawler at sea. By placing tiny, durable digital cameras in hard-to-get-to places, the filmmakers discover new perspectives (under water, inside a sloshing bin full of fish) that create a disorienting spell.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter.

Showing: Northwest Film Forum.

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