Thursday, January 21, 2021

Love on the Frozen Land

Atlantis (2019) - Vasyanovych Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.02.35 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.12.02 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.01.14 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 3.59.59 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 3.59.17 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.10.51 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.06.39 PM The pitfall of political filmmaking in general, in my view, both fiction and non-fiction, is its didacticism that turns people off, however well intentioned and informative it might be. Without fail, these films come across as snobbish and classicist. It is doubly difficult as we live in an era where irony is dead and satire is getting harder and harder to pull off when the real world already feels like a grotesque satire of itself. 

Good filmmakers know how to use genre filmmaking in order to tell a topical, timely and socially relevant stories. In the recent surge of those films - Bacurau and Transit come to mind, filmmakers brought down sci-fi closed to home - political/economic instability & ecological devastation into a revenge thriller against first world, and a fascist takeover (history repeating itself) into an identity crisis, directly referencing the current state of Brazil and Germany/Europe respectively. These sci-fi genre tropes gave the filmmakers a lot of freedom to reflect on the current state of affairs while giving themselves a bit of distance to play around and even have some fun, while regarding them as if they are mere sci-fi and works of imagination, not socio-political realist films.

Writer/director/cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych (who lensed The Tribe) is one of those good filmmakers. And his stunning new film, Atlantis, proves that a science fiction can be both visually arresting and also socio-politically relevant to the present. In this case, it concerns his home country of Ukraine.

The subtitle in the beginning says it's the year 2025, a mere 4 years in the future. The Ukraine-Russian war seems to be over but wintry industrial landscape suggests that the war devastated the ecosystem and made a large swath of its land uninhabitable. The human toll both physically and emotionally is even greater, as we are introduced two PTSD ailing former soldiers whose sleepless nights are spent on driving around and shooting at makeshift targets planted on frozen tundra. The steel mill they both work at is taken over by multi-national corporation: an English-speaking figurehead on a giant screen talks of the bright future while pumping up Soviet style propaganda reminiscent of 1984. Many are fired from the job because of the automation of labor.

After his PTSD buddy's fiery suicide T2 style into the furnace at the steal mill, Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) moves on and gets a job as a water tanker driver - water became scarce since the bombardment and landmines planted during the war contaminated much of the country's water supply. On the road, he meets Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), a volunteer for a humanitarian group which identify the war dead by digging them up from half-frozen, muddy mass graves. It's a gruesome process, but it will give a lot of people closures, she says.

Talk of homeland takes a center stage. Ukraine might appear to be an unforgiving, desolate wasteland now, but where else would its inhabitants live? Sergiy is offered to work for an international organization and go abroad by a woman he rescued from a landmine wreckage. He says resolutely, "This is my home. Where could I go?"

The visual symmetry in wide ratio shot Atlantis is awe-inspiring. The industrial landscapes and machinery, as well as decay of abandoned houses (think of decay porn of Detroit, but doubling here as the war aftermath) have common with Ed Burtynsky's photographic documentations of the late stages of capitalist society - Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Anthroposcene (2018) and other documentaries that focuses on ecological devastation and human footprints on earth. Charting the country's recent history with human elements, Vasyanovych also finds common spirits with Jia Zhangke, the master chronicler of China and its people.

Vasyanovych unsubtly comments on Russian expansionism as seen in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Western commerce influence, but the film is not without hope. Working with non actors (Rymaruk is a former soldier, Bileka is a medic), the director imbues real life experiences within their fictional characters to give sense of connection, sense of national identity. The bare bone romance between Sergiy and Katya with the cold and unforgiving backdrop hints at the glimmer of hope, human resilience and connection despite dire circumstances. It's there, even if we are only able to detect it through infrared camera footage.Atlantis marks the arrival of the first great film of 2021.
Please visit Metrograph for virtual tickets. The film opens on 1/22.

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