Friday, March 18, 2022

First Look ‘22: Reflection

Russian war crimes in Ukraine really aren’t new. They have been going on since the invasion of 2014. When Putin launched his full-scale war, they just reached a magnitude that the world could no longer pretend to ignore. In 2021, Putin’s war was still primarily confined to the Donbass, but the brutality of the Russian military is just the same. A released POW experiences profound PTSD, but somehow manages to survive in director-screenwriter-cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Reflection, which screens at MOMI during this year’s First Look.

Serhiy is a fortysomething surgeon, who struggles to connect with his preteen daughter Polina, despite staying on reasonably good terms with his ex-wife and her new husband, Andriy. Polina’s step-father is less educated than Serhiy, but he feels shamed by the working-class man’s service with the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces. Soon, he too volunteers, but he is captured while in transit to the battle theater.

The surgeon will be mercilessly tortured, as Vasyanovych’s horrifically yet matter-of-factly establishes. However, his medical training probably saves his life, but leads to great nightmares, when he is repeated brought to interrogation cells and execution chambers, to determine whether prisoners are dead yet. Then, he also witnesses body after body disposed of in mobile crematoriums, to conceal the evidence. He is one of the lucky ones, who returns home as part of a prisoner exchange. Tragically, it appears Andriy has not been so lucky.

vividly depicts Russian war crimes, but it really is not an expose designed to change hearts and minds. Vasyanovych’s rigorous aesthetics and long-shot compositions are not particularly accessible for middle-of-the-road audiences. More fundamentally, it is not motivated by negative impulses to indict. Vasyanovych is ultimately more concerned with a positive program, exploring how Ukrainians can endure grisly horrors and re-embrace life on the other side.

Much like Vasyanovych’s previous film
Atlantis, Reflection is almost a series of striking tableaux. There is not a lot of traditional “action,” but when something happens, it’s significant. He also demands an unconventional, largely silent method of acting from his cast, but as Serhiy, Roman Lutskyi’s body language is definitely expressive—and sometimes harrowing.

is not the sort of film that will be screened at fundraisers, but it has a lot to say, both about the state of Ukraine and the 21st Century human condition. This is a serious film that could be an international Oscar contender (since it presumably will not have much qualified competition, because of Putin’s invasion). Although all too timely, Reflection should really advance Vasyanovych’s international reputation as an exacting stylist. Highly recommended for sophisticated cinematic palates (and as a statement from hardcore cineastes), Reflection screens Sunday (3/20) as part of First Look 2022.