Sunday, May 01, 2022

Bad Roads, from Film Movement’s Ukrainian Collection

Why do American action film distributors keep releasing Russian WWII films? Several hit DVD shelves during the weeks following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and another (about a sniper from Siberia, no less) was just announced. These movies feed Putin’s propaganda narrative of a Russia waging war against [neo]-Nazis, when the truth is the Communist partisans who really battled the Germans were purged after the War and even a hero of Ahmet-khan Sultan’s stature barely survived the ethnic cleansing of his Crimean Tatar people. We fought the Germans. Stalin fought domestic dissent. Film Movement has taken a different approach, releasing a number of films from Ukraine explicitly addressing Putin’s ongoing invasion and scorched earth occupation of the Donbass region. In addition to Loznitsa’s Donbass and Vasyanovych’s Reflection, Film Movement also recently released Natalya Vorozhbit’s Bad Roads in real and virtual theaters.

Submitted as Ukraine’s international contender for the slap-happy Oscars that just passed,
Bad Roads is a bit like a Ukrainian version of Manchevski’s Before the Rain, but its four constituent stories are not as explicitly interlinked and the does not turn in on itself in such a conspicuous way. In fact, the pieces vary quite a bit in their power and potency. The first and third really stand out, for very different reasons.

Bad Roads
starts with a somewhat inebriated school principal who is inconveniently unable to find his passport when stopped at a military checkpoint. Vorozhbit strangely but adroitly alternates between tension and absurdist Beckett-like humor, keeping viewers guessing who might be a threat to whom. It is also a distant-far cry from anything you might consider Ukrainian “propaganda”—quite the contrary, actually.

The high point of the film, which could and maybe should stand on its own, is the third story. We watch in absolute horror as a Russian-backed paramilitary separatist kidnaps a young Ukrainian journalist for the sole purpose of brutalizing and humiliating her. What transpires is often hard to watch, because it outdoes torturer-victim dynamic of
Death and the Maiden by multiple magnitudes. Yet, the survival strategies employed by the woman are so rivetingly intense and provocative, they will make your jaw drop.

Marina Klimova is absolutely extraordinary as the journalist. It is a truly harrowing and profoundly haunting performance that ought to earn her a best supporting Oscar in a more just war (memo to the Academy, here’s a way to show you “Stand with Ukraine”). Likewise, even though Vorozhbit often keeps him shrouded in shadows, Yuri Kulinich is absolutely chilling as her tormentor, Stas.

The second interlude, involving a rebellious teen’s contentious relationships with her school “friends” and her earnest grandmother feels almost inconsequential compared to rest of the film. However, the simple faith of the Granny (nicely played by Yuliya Matrosova) is a timely reminder of how misguided it is for some of our fringe super-Christians to side with Putin, when Ukraine is a much more devout God-fearing and -worshipping nation.

The fourth episode, involving a motorist from the big city, who finds herself in a potentially
Deliverance-like situation after running over a rustic farm couple’s chicken has an unsettling [ironically Polanski-esque] vibe, but it feels out of place with the rest of the film. Nevertheless, it certainly enforces the notion of the Donbass being an unpredictably dangerous area.

Bad Roads
is undeniably inconsistent, but its best parts are viscerally gripping. Everyone should watch the third arc, but a lot of people wouldn’t be able to face it. Very highly recommended for its centerpiece drama, Bad Roads is now screening via Laemmle’s virtual theater.