Pamfir: an otherworldly Ukrainian gangster movie

Director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk cultivates a world of deranged, demonic machismo in this ethereal thriller about a Ukrainian smuggler forced to take one final job.

4 May 2023

By Jonathan Romney

Pamfir (2022)Pamfir (2022) © Courtesy of Conic
Sight and Sound

Much recent Ukrainian cinema has been set against the conflict that was already raging before Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Much of it has also been notable for its female perspective – including last year’s premieres Klondike and Butterfly Vision, and the 2020 documentary The Earth Is Blue as an Orange. In contrast, Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s Pamfir contains little overt reference to recent events – barring a mention of someone killed by separatists – and adopts an aggressively masculine focus, celebrating the feats of a preternaturally vigorous and resilient muscleman hero.

Set in the Bukovina region of western Ukraine, near the Romanian border, Pamfir is in a register that suggests Eastern European magical realism, although it contains nothing fantastical per se. An otherworldly tone is established by a confrontationally bizarre opening shot, introducing hero Leonid (Oleksandr Yatsentyuk), aka Pamfir, disguised as a demon in a carved wooden mask – a costume associated with the Malanka new year carnival of western Ukraine.

This event – the subject of the director’s 2013 documentary Krasna Malanka – plays a central role in Pamfir, both narratively and in the extravagant visuals, from scenes in a costume workshop to the electrically vivid climactic revelry. The demon imagery also establishes its protagonist as not entirely of the human realm. Leonid – his inherited nom de guerre means a type of stone – is himself a force of nature, taking on foes like a cornered beast, growling and grunting during sex with his wife.

In earthbound terms, Pamfir is essentially a rural gangster movie. Leonid is a hardened criminal, but also a devoted family man, who has returned to his village from work abroad, albeit only for a short stay. His teenage son Nazar, anxious for him to attend the Malanka with him, burns Leonid’s papers – and, accidentally, the village church. This lands the family in trouble with local crime boss and forestry official Orest (as per the subtitles, but he’s also referred to as Morda, the name used in the end credits).

That’s the simple outline, but to unearth it takes some digging, given the muddy complexity of this fictional world – and ‘muddy’ is the word, as witnessed by a shot of Leonid emerging like a burrowing beast from a hole in sodden, clayey ground.

Overall, the film is less about Leonid himself than about a world depicted in such bustling detail that you can imagine Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk returning to it, with or without Pamfir, in further films. The cast of characters is confusingly broad: Pamfir’s parents, a corrupt cop, an underworld crony named ‘the Rat’, giggling twin children, and the various hirelings around Orest, a portly, smirking tyrant whose adulation as the subject of a local personality cult might seem to make him a Putin or Stalin surrogate.

Oleksandr Yatsentyuk as Leonid in Pamfir (2022)
Oleksandr Yatsentyuk as Leonid in Pamfir (2022)
© Courtesy of Conic

Fleeting scraps of backstory and a head-spinning amount of incident are woven into the long takes mounted by director of photography Nikita Kuzmenko; a tobacco-smuggling sortie in the forest shows especially audacious choreography, a commando operation for characters and camera. Pamfir’s solo fight with an army of Orest’s thugs recalls the brawl in Park Chanwook’s Oldboy (2003), but here the camera wheels around, in contrast to that film’s linear to-and-fro.

In some longer takes, a given character – Leonid or his mother – will move through village or forest, in and out of buildings, scenery shifting continually around them while other figures emerge from the edges of the frame, only to be swept away in the turbulence. The feeling of immersion in the absolutely unfamiliar is reminiscent of Emir Kusturica’s films, which similarly defy us to acclimatise to their chaos, or seek quieter, more manageable pleasures elsewhere.

The world of Pamfir, steeped in violence and rooted in ancient tradition, is predominantly male. The pills that Pamfir swallows to boost his running and fighting strength also give him erections, so that he has to jerk off after a punch-up. Arriving home at the start, he has energetic sex with his wife Olena – who then gives him a post-coital pedicure. Characterised as a long-suffering believer, Olena is central to the film’s sometimes elusive theological theme: she declares, “God helps me transform my pain into fuel.” Even so, despite a striking performance of careworn intensity by Solomiya Kyrylova, the character of Olena feels marginalised in a world of deranged machismo – one defined by Yatsentyuk’s lead and glorified by a kinetic filmmaking style you might call ‘demonic expressionism’.

 ► Pamfir is in UK cinemas from 5 May.