Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s “Atlantis” begins in eastern Ukraine in the year 2025. A note says it’s a year after a war with Russia ended.
It wasn’t entirely prophetic for the 2019 film, which won a top prize at the Venice Film Festival. Post-Soviet Russia had long intended to regain control of Ukraine, and it annexed Crimea in 2014. Today, Ukraine faces a much larger Russian invasion. than Vassianovitch seems to have imagined.
“Atlantis” is a visually stunning yet minimalist drama, with a deliberately slow pace. It’s dystopian, as most of its characters work in the war-torn region of eastern Ukraine, trying to deal with the collateral damage of war. For some, that means finding buried landmines. For others, there is the recovery of unidentified bodies. For those who suffer from PTSD, very little is bearable.
Sergiy is a former soldier who works as a water delivery man. The war has degraded the land so much that clean water has to be trucked into the area. He drives his huge truck through destroyed rural roads and abandoned industrial buildings.
He is also warned to bring his own toolbox, as everything seems to break down or barely work in the old war zone. Essentially, people are alone. This is also true when foreign companies close factories, leaving workers more cut off from the outside world.
Along his route, Sergiy encounters a crew with a broken down van. Katya is part of a team that recovers bodies. They work to recover the remains and identify the deceased for the families. The grim cataloging of the boots and stripes of their tattered uniforms has an air of intrigue about who was fighting for which side. There are also other clues to the circumstances of their role in the war or their deaths. Katya says she was pursuing a degree in archeology before the war, and now she’s using her skills to figure out what happened a few years ago, rather than thousands.
Vasyanovych shoots most of the scenes in long static shots. The camera rarely moves as the action seems to take place on a portrait or a scene. Despite the film’s lackluster color palette, the earth tones of both grassy plains and muddy industrial hubs are lush, and it’s an eerily beautiful portrait of a dark environment. Sometimes Vasyanovych contrasts them with a bright red and orange fire, like a vat of molten steel in a factory or a small fire heating water in the winter cold. A few scenes in the dark shot with infrared cameras take on the specter of espionage and the hidden secrets of people caught up in the war.
Screens at the Broad Theater on March 11.
There’s little dialogue, but Vassyanovitch’s setting says it all. Some of the men struggle with the transition from war to peace. Sergiy practices shooting at targets in an icy field. Others can’t handle the boredom of their previous jobs. The bomb detonation team still lives under the threat of death. The pace of the film reflects the slow healing process.
The film is not overtly political and focuses on the actions of a handful of people. Camaraderie is a powerful thing when the bond is above the terror or loss of war, even if the scarred survivors endure it in silence. The film is a search for hope, but one that recognizes that it will take time for the seeds planted in such rugged ground to grow.
“Atlantis” opens Friday, March 11 at the Zeitgeist Theater & Lounge. In Ukrainian with English subtitles.
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