Dir.: Valentyn Vasyanovych; Cast: Roman Lutskyi, Nika Myslytska, Nadya Levchenko, Andrii Rymaruk, Ihor Shilha; Ukraine 2021, 208 min.
Valentyn Vasyanovych is an award-winning director whose films are set against the backdrop of Ukraine’s conflict with Russia that has been raging since 2014, erupting into a full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022. In 2019 he won the Horizon prize at Venice for Atlantis and garnered the Special Jury Price of the Competition of last year’s Mostra with Reflection, again in the climate of Russian/Ukrainian war.
Both films revolve around love and reconciliation: in Atlantis the love is between a man and woman, Reflection sees a father and daughter united after a divorce: surgeon Sergiy (Lutskyi) and his wife Olga (Levchenko) have left young Polina (Myslytska, the director’s daughter) in the care of step dad Andriy (Rymaruk).
We meet the four of them during the Kyiv conflict, trying to make the best of things for Polina’s birthday. Later, we see Sergiy in his operating theatre, trying to save the life of a Ukrainian soldier in vain. But things will get worse for him and Andriy: the doctor is captured by Russian occupying forces: he is interrogated and tortured by the leader of the Russians garrison (Shulha) but survives, Andriy is not so lucky.
Sergiy bribes a Russian soldier not to incarcerate Andriy in the Russian mini crematorium van bearing the bogus inscription “Humane Aid from the Russian Federation”. Instead, the doctor promises the Russian soldier a hefty sum of money if he releases the body to Andriy’s family.
Vasyanovych writes, directs and serves as his own DoP using hyper-realism in an intense aesthetic dominated by the gloom – apart from one happy scene. The focus in the second half turns to Polina who is clearly hankering after Andriy while accepting her biological father’s generosity in a drama that offers a powerful snapshot of the conflict from violence to enduring tenderness, Vasyanovych somehow unable to find a satisfying conclusion to the endless atmosphere of tragedy that is still destroying his country, even now. AS