Ukraine Oscar Entry ‘Atlantis’ Offers Dystopian Future
Plus Poe opera and new police thriller
Friday, January 29, 2021
"Dead Man's Letters" (1986)
Ukraine has submitted a dozen films for Oscar consideration since 1997 but has yet to win a nomination. This year’s Ukrainian submission for the Academy’s Best International Feature is "Atlantis," which begins screening virtually Friday through Digital Gym Cinema. Plus more streaming options.
"Atlantis" is a film that deserves to be in a cinema where it can command a viewer’s full attention. I worry that this slow, elegantly crafted film may lose people who are watching at home where distractions abound.
"Atlantis" serves up a dystopian Ukraine of the near future. It's 2025, there has been war and resources have been depleted, factories are closing, and the landscape and opportunities are bleak.
Eastern Ukraine has become uninhabitable with water in high demand but people traverse the desert to explode old mines and exhume bodies left by the war. Serhiy (Andriy Rymaruk) fought in the war and works in a factory that is closing. The film shows us Serhiy and a fellow ex-soldier enjoying some makeshift target practice but then his distraught friend commits suicide by throwing himself into molten steel at work. Serhiy later crosses paths with Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), a young woman who exhumes bodies as well as the past from old battlefields.
Against this backdrop, the two begin a relationship.
Director Valentyn Vasyanovych constructs his film in a series of 28 shots, mostly from a slightly distant and completely static camera. The opening shot is from a heat sensor camera as men, likely soldiers, kill a man and throw him in a grave. The next shot informs us it is 2025, a year after the war. That first shot suggests a certain voyeuristic watching with all but I think two shots maintaining that static, observatory perspective on the characters. We rarely get close enough to appreciate any facial nuance of expression.
The lengthy shots may test the patience of viewers accustomed to rapid cuts that assume attention spans are a mere few seconds. But each shot is beautifully and carefully designed so that if you wait and pay attention you’ll be rewarded.
For example, there is a scene of Serhiy waking up in his apartment after his friend's suicide. The uninterrupted shot shows him waking up and taking a pair of pants from outside where they have become frozen. He takes out an iron to bring the pants back to life but then he touches the iron with his fingers and then presses it to his leg before screaming in pain and then destroying his room.
The scene reveals a host of information if you choose to pay attention. We sense the harsh conditions of where he lives, get a taste of daily routines, see that he doesn't own or have much, and are shown how he is trying to process his friend's suicide by trying to imagine what burning to death might actually feel like. All this we learn without any dialogue or editing to force a point of view on us.
Sometimes the length and stillness of a shot is there to make you think as when we watch an autopsy. We feel like an observer in the room as the camera lingers objectively on the corpse. As we hear the body's condition and possible cause of death being described it makes us think about war and violence in a different way.
Other times the visual style provokes or challenges expectations with its slow, methodical reveal as in the scene of the workplace suicide.
But even though there is a sense of objective distance, we can't help but get pulled into the unexpected romance of the two characters. I think it comes as much of a surprise to us as viewers as it does to them. And that is the unexpected hopeful humanism that emerges from the film.
"Atlantis" is a remarkable film, but you need to give it your full attention to appreciate it. You also need to adjust expectations to let it seduce you with its particular style and pace. But Vasyanovych has a unique cinematic voice that is mesmerizing.
'The Fall of the House of Usher' Opera
The restrictions of the pandemic have unexpectedly opened up opportunities for audiences to to see things that they might not have had access to before. Case in point is the Boston Lyric Opera's newly commissioned film version of Philip Glass' opera "The Fall Of The House Of Usher." Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic horror tale the filmed version of the opera employs amazing hand-drawn and stop-motion animation along with archival footage to create a COVID-safe production.
Film and opera director James Darrah works from a new treatment by Spanish writer Raúl Santos. It reimagines Poe’s story with a contemporary political context that now involves a young immigrant girl named Luna who is being held at the U.S. border.
It’s an ambitious idea but Poe’s work doesn’t really lend itself to contemporary politics. Poe's work is intensely internal and his genius was to get you into the mind of a character. I can understand a company's interest in trying to make Poe feel more relevant especially at a time when quarantining at home allows us time to reflect on many contemporary issues. But the social commentary feels a bit forced and not altogether successful. However, the stunning mixed media visual style and compelling score by Glass still make this opera worth checking out.
'The Little Things'
"The Little Things" offers a solid crime thriller with strong performances but it arrives at a moment in time when its story and point of view feel out of sync with recent events.
The film involves a Kern County Sheriff played by Denzel Washington and an L.A. homicide sergeant played by Rami Malek tracking a serial killer (Jared Leto) in 1990. As a police procedural it’s fine and even darkly compelling as it looks at how a case can turn into an obsession.
The problem comes when the film ultimately is about turning a blind eye to corruption within law enforcement. Setting it in 1990 distances it from current issues but cops abusing a suspect's rights -- even if the suspect is white -- is not something that should be treated lightly no matter what the setting. I don't want to reveal the plot twists and turns but police corruption at the core of the story feels problematic because the casual acceptance of it is never really commented on. At a time when we have been made acutely aware of police brutality this film feels painfully tone deaf.
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