Dir.: Valentyn Vasyanovych; Cast: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka. Sergiy Katya; USA/Ukraine 2019, 104 min.
This third feature by Ukranian director/writer DoP Valentyn Vasyanovych (Kredens) is a bleak dystopian fable set in contemporary Eastern Ukraine, where anti-hero Sergiy battles not only his PTSD, but also a poisoned environment – literally and figuratively.
Atlantis is a difficult film to watch, and remains seared to the memory as it plays out mostly without dialogue, the roaming camera telling us all we need to know. Vasyanovych avoids sentimentality, his courageous protagonists having to face up to a hellish existence which is not of their own making.
This apocalyptic thriller opens with five male holograms dancing around menacingly. Cut to a reality, and a war-ravaged landscape where the rivers have been poisoned by the Russians. Sergiy (Rymaruk) and his friend Ivan (Katya) work in a smelting furnace which is soon to close. Ivan is so depressed with the futility of his existence he jumps into the burning steel lava. Sergiy, feeling guilty about his friend’s death later burns himself with a hot iron in his decrepit studio room. Atlantis shows how the deep bonds of love and homeland can help us to endure the most appalling situations, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
After the factory is shut, Sergiy takes as job as a driver for a mobile water tank, providing fresh supplies for soldiers and state employees. He is warned it will take several decades to clear the unexploded mines but things look up when he meets para-medic Katya (Bileka) who is helping to identify the many corpses still littering the countryside. Her car has broken down, and Sergiy tows her vehicle to the nearest town where we witness an exhumation performed by two pathologists. The whole scene is one of the most difficult of the entire feature, the medics going painstakingly about their business painstakingly detailing the decaying bodies. Surprisingly (or not), Sergiy is not particularly hungry afterwards, buy while Katya tucks into her food, he offers to help her on his weeks off. This work is not for the faint-hearted and she has to help him to get over the shock of the gruesome finds. Another stroke of luck comes when he saves the life of a woman who tuns out to be an ecologist for a worldwide organisation, and offers him a job abroad, “to start a new life”. But however gruelling, he prefers working with Katya, and when their vehicle breaks down, the camera zooms in from the outside through the torrents of rain, showing two deeply affected people who slowly fall for each other, their feelings an antidote to the horror of war. Vasyanovich leaves us to draw our own conclusions about this deeply affecting but enigmatic feature: “This is like a reservation for people like us, it would be hard to live anywhere else.” AS
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | 28 – 7 August 2019