Ukrainian writer-director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s drama won the top prize in the Horizons strand at the Venice film festival in 2019: in the signature style of Slavic arthouse cinema, it mostly comprises a series of long-held, static widescreen tableaux. Each scene is about the same length, and within each long, ventilator-speed shot everything seems to carry the same weight: a man being berated by a supervisor at a steel mill and then jumping into the smelter in despair; another guy making a bathtub out of a rusted out car; a couple having sex in real time. The story is set in 2025, “a year after the end of the war” – in other words the one with Russia in eastern Ukraine that’s been rumbling away for years now. But instead of being numbingly dreary and depressing, given the economically depressed, horrifically polluted and landmine-strewn region, Atlantis is strangely upbeat, oddly hopeful even.
It helps that Vasyanovych, who was also the cinematographer and editor of The Tribe, an outstanding Ukrainian film from 2014, has cast deeply likable and empathic non-professionals, most of whom reportedly had direct experience of the conflict. They reward the director with fine performances. Lushly bearded Serghiy (Andriy Rymaruk) has a gentle, bearish mien and is entirely convincing as a former soldier and former steelworker, who ends up helping former archaeology student and ex-paramedic Katya in the ongoing project of retrieving the anonymous remains of the dead from the fields of battle so that forensic specialists can try to identify the bodies. (She notes with bitter irony that she’s ended up working in the field she studied, only now she’s digging up bodies much less ancient than she expected.)
Compared with other recent features set around this region, like Sergey Loznitsa’s antic, surrealist satire Donbass, Atlantis is more conventional and more accessible. But at least it gets to outline some of the horrors of what’s going on there, in a war almost entirely out of sight and mind for viewers in most of the west, and it does so without leaving any acrid taste of hopelessness.