The war with Russia is over, but eastern Ukraine is still a no man’s land—now more so than ever. The scorched earth is riddled with mummified corpses, land mines, and toxic pollution, parting gifts left by the Russian invaders. Sergiy is a Ukrainian war veteran, who is as dead inside as the scarred landscape around him, but he could possibly come back to life in director-screenwriter-cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Atlantis, Ukraine’s official international Oscar submission, which opens virtually this Friday.
The year is 2025. It is not exactly clear Ukraine won the war in the strictest terms, but at least the Russians have left. Frankly, Sergiy is still stuck in the war, constantly training to take up arms again. When his factory closes, Sergiy takes a part-time gig delivering potable water into the former war-zone (which represents life).
It is solitary work, but he unexpectedly starts finding meaning when volunteering for an NGO that exhumes and identifies corpses unearthed in the killing fields (very literally revisiting death). It was Katya who recruited him. Ironically, she studied archaeology before the war. Their work is often gruesome, but it some ways it is cathartic. In fact, it might rouse them out of their shells.
Visually, Atlantis brings to mind Slaboshpytkiy’s The Tribe, which makes sense, since Vasyanovych served as its cinematographer. Throughout Atlantis, he favors long-held long shots that are strikingly composed. He uses every inch and corner of the screen, like a canvas. Yet, it all resonates much more deeply than the typical “slow cinema” endurance challenge. There are also a series of significant narrative events that reveal much about the nature of the conflict.
Atlantis is an uncompromising film in every way, but it also offers hope and potential redemption. Vasyanovych addresses personal and national trauma with brutal frankness and intimate directness, very definitely moving at his own deliberate pace. Yet, Atlantis is never dry or academic. This is an excellent film, but it demands an adult attention span. Highly recommended for discerning viewers, Atlantis opens tomorrow (1/22), via the Metrograph’s virtual theater.