To describe “Leviathan” as a documentary about fishing is both accurate and deceptive. The misleading word would be “about.” The film, by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, is a work of nonfiction set entirely on a groundfish trawler out of New Bedford, Mass., but it avoids the standard equipment of interviews, analysis and explanation. If you want to understand the ecological consequences and economic challenges of the modern commercial fishing industry, or to learn about the place of the ocean in the global food chain, you will have to go elsewhere.
“Leviathan,” a product of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, offers not information but immersion: 90 minutes of wind, water, grinding machinery and piscine agony. The experience is often unnerving and sometimes nauseating, because of the motions of the juddering, swaying hand-held camera and also because of the distended eyes.
At other moments, like when the film tracks the flight of gulls across the night sky or plunges into the North Atlantic water amid a cascade of starfish, it has a dreamy, enchanted beauty. There are also passages of abstraction that are both beguiling and disorienting, in which it becomes difficult to distinguish big from small, natural from mechanical.
The brutality of fishing, as opposed to its romance, is emphasized here. Not that the filmmakers are pushing a vegetarian or environmentalist point of view. They are trying, instead, to take in the details and rhythms of life and death at sea without ideas or preconceptions. In the final credits they record not only the names of the crew members but also those of the fauna around them, including Larus marinus (commonly known as the sea gull) and Melanogrammus aeglefinus (appearing on menus as haddock).