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▶︎ Atlantis is streaming on Mubi.
The orange-green glow of heat camera footage reveals a couple of figures, likely soldiers given their bulky clothing and weaponry, standing around a small trench. A prostrate body is dragged in and pitched into the shallow grave, shovelfuls of dirt slung over it.
The image is so alien it takes a minute to process its real horror – the blob representing the victim is glowing orange as the black earth gradually obscures it: he is being buried alive. Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s remarkable Venice 2019 Horizons winner Atlantis may immediately switch to exquisitely composed, live-action images of startlingly crisp, austere devastation but his film’s most potent motifs are all established in this eerie, alien opening: war, death, callousness, heat and dirt.
It is the year 2025, a title informs us, one year after “the war” ended. But as gruff, haunted Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) grubs a living delivering water in the ruined eastern Ukrainian countryside, it’s clear that the conflict polluted and ravaged the landscape almost as much as it did the PTSD-ridden psyches of its bellicose, suicidal combatants. Whoever won, everyone lost.
Sergiy’s initial workplace is an apocalyptic-looking steel foundry in which clanking machines, heavy chains and scaffolded walkways are suspended over massive vats of molten metal. When the plant is shut down – announced in a very 1984 scene as the Orwellian management trot out patriotic doublespeak and propaganda movies to justify the closure – Sergiy scrapes a subsistence by driving a supply truck out into the scrubby hinterlands.
On one of his forays in his repurposed military vehicle – everything around here, right down to the clothes, seems battered by years of combat – he meets Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), a similarly withdrawn young woman working with a volunteer taskforce whose doleful purpose is to collect discarded bodies for burial following a brisk autopsy (one such fascinating, grisly procedure plays out almost in full in one of the film’s unblinking, symmetrical takes). Sergiy and Katya form a sort of bond – initially little more than a cold flinty spark in the darkness, but one which flares to a small flame and gives an otherwise challengingly chilly film its tiny glowing filament of hope.
The bleak, nihilist expanses and rubble-strewn interiors inevitably recall Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but here the ravages of war are rawer, more recent. The rivers are poisoned and the treeless, grassless ground is pitted with unexploded mines and mass graves. The war-is-hell commentary is as much environmental as political. Yet Vasyanovych, who acts as his own cinematographer (he also shot Miroslav Slaboshpitskiy’s The Tribe) instils real formal grandeur into the grimness, finding pristine frames of such texture and contrast that even when entire actions – Sergiy taking a makeshift bath in the abandoned claw of a JCB digger – play out in totality, they never lose their power to compel. Usually deploying a source of fire as a scorching focal point amid the charred surroundings, Vasyanovych’s astonishing images have an elemental, wrought-iron formalism, as though they’ve been pulled from livid forges and plunged hissing into vats of water to cool.
The power of these tableaux propels us through the only loosely connected vignettes they illustrate. One-man-band Vasyanovych, also the editor, cuts between scenes bluntly, so there’s no telling if it’s the next day or the next month. So although whole sequences play out patiently, in sometimes endurance-trying real time, the effect is jittery, fragmented. Even with minimal dialogue, and no music cues to smooth the way (only Serhiy Stepansky’s exceptional, acrid sound design), the film is extraordinarily expressive, and there is just enough mordant, absurdist visual wit to leaven to the gloom: a pair of frozen jeans on a washing line tapping at a window like tree branches in a Hammer horror; faraway minesweepers setting off controlled explosions while bored workmen chat in the foreground; a sex scene that happens amid (occupied) black body bags.
Still, there’s no denying that the outlook here is deeply pessimistic. Any glimmer of positivity offered by its very-near-future setting, which foretells the end of the seemingly intractable Ukraine/Russia conflict in a few years, is quickly snuffed out by the extent of the psychological, environmental and social devastation that Vasyanovych deems plausible in that space of time.
But if the tone of stark, lambent despair makes Atlantis a niche proposition, its uncompromising, forceful formalism also undeniably marks Vasyanovych, whose 2017 film Black Level was selected as Ukraine’s foreign-language Oscar entry, as one of the most exciting visionaries to come out of the region in recent years. Whether the future it imagines turns out to be a cautionary tale or a soberingly accurate prophecy, Atlantis is a powerful, essential lament for the humanity and the harmony with nature that are the first casualties buried in the shallow graves of war.
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