Donbass (2018) ****

April 20th, 2019
Author: Meredith Taylor

Writer/Dir: Sergey Loznitsa | Cast: Valeriu Andriuta, Boris Kamorzin, Sergey Kolesov | Drama | Ukraine/Ger/France/Neth/Romania/Russia | 110

Donbass today is a conflation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, and an important mining region since the late 19th century, when it became heavily industrialised. Sergey Loznitsa’s drama set in the region opened this year’s Un Certain Regard strand at Cannes.

In March 2014, following the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and Russian military intervention, large swaths of the Donbass seethed with unrest that eventually erupted in a war between pro-Russian separatists affiliated with the self-proclaimed unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, and the post-revolutionary Ukrainian government. Until the ongoing war, Donbass – which borders Russia – was the most densely populated of all the regions of Ukraine, apart from the capital city of Kiev. Before the war, the city of Donetsk (then the fifth largest city in Ukraine) had been considered the unofficial capital of the Donbass.

And it is during this troubled period of history that the Ukrainian born filmmaker sets his follow-up to last year’s Cannes title A Gentle Creature (he has made a film every year since his 2012 In The Fog: The Letter; Maidan; The Event and Austerlitz. Elliptical and visually striking, DONBASS does lack a certain warmth, focusing on its formal rigour and an evocative sense of emptiness, it is a piece that will certainly appeal to the diehard arthouse crowd.

The narrative follows but does not focus on any particular character, as a series of interconnecting vignettes gradually unfold that will be more engaging for audiences intimately familiar with the situation, rather than to outsiders looking in. There is a haunting scene where a prisoner (Valery Antoniuk) gets lynched by a crowd of locals who believe him to be a member of a Ukrainian execution squad. But nobody seems safe in this combattive, hostile and unpredicatble environment fraught with sudden explosions as gunfire rumbles continually in the background. The director conveys a palpable sense of generalised chaos and desperation.

Loznitsa collaborates again with DoP Oleg Mutu (who also lensed A Gentle Creature). This is a muscular and intelligent piece of filmmaking, but one that will have the most appeal to keen historians and ardant fans of this accomplished and fascinating director.MT




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