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Venice Dispatch: Vasyanovych’s “Reflection,” Franco’s “Sundown,” Russo’s “El Gran Movimiento”

A riff on Camus and a war drama are two of the festival’s most brutal entries, while a gem from Bolivia one of the most entrancing.
Leonardo Goi
Of all the titles screening on the Lido this year, few had me as concerned and intrigued as Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Reflection. Concerned, because a few friends who’d already seen the director’s latest take on the Russian-Ukrainian war had testified to its unflinching depictions of violence and torture (including and especially one early scene involving a leg and a screwdriver). And intrigued, because it was Vasyanovich’s follow up to his Atlantis, winner of the Orizzonti lineup in 2019, a haunting excursion into a bombed-out no-man’s-land that cartwheeled between moments of extreme brutality and flickering glimpses of empathy. That film was set in a not-so-distant future where Ukraine had emerged victorious—and shattered—from the war with Russia. Reflection kicks off instead in 2014, the year the conflict broke out. Yet Vasyanovych doesn’t throw us to the battlefield from the start; for a short while, it leaves us hanging with Ukrainian surgeon Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi) as he goes about his business in the city, and all we witness of the war are the bodies flooding his ER unit. His ex-wife has found a new partner, Andrii (Andriy Rymaruk), a soldier who relays more troubling news from the front, which needle the medic into enlisting, only to be captured by the enemy before he gets to shoot a single bullet.
What follows is a relentless descent into hell that far outstrips its predecessor in cruelty, where the doctor is humiliated, tortured, and eventually recruited to assist in the gruesome interrogations of fellow prisoners. To capture it all, Vasyanovych—who, as in Atlantis, serves in a multi-hyphenated stint as writer-director-editor-cinematographer—embraces the same visual grammar of that earlier project. Reflection unspools as a series of tableaux, of uninterrupted static shots where characters are always kept at a certain distance. The choice had paid dividends in Atlantis, fostering the sense of claustrophobia and entrapment of its spiritually broken drifters, and it works wonders here too, presenting the atrocities in a matter-of-fact, surgical ruthlessness. Crucially, screens are everywhere in the film; time and again, Vasyanovych stages his scenes with an audience watching things unfold behind a glass surface. And if those windows first seem to act as shields, mediating and protecting us from the horror (be it a dying body in the ER or a paintball match), once Serhiy makes it back to the city to wrestle with his PTSD and the moral conundrum that set him free, those transparent canvasses morph into something different altogether, confessionals the man can turn to for solace and atonement.
Reflection’s second part wasn’t as gripping as the first (then again, given the tour de force the film submits you in its first hour, is that at all surprising?) but it is here that Vasyanovych wrings out some of his most symbolic passages. In one, a pigeon crashes and dies on the window of Serhiy’s monastic flat, spurring a conversation between father and estranged daughter on the nature of the soul. Depending on your patience with such things, these segments can be either confounding or harrowing. I found them to be the latter, in no small part because Vasyanovych’s compositions, including those where the sorrows feel most vivid, always seem to exude a sort of agonizing beauty. You may argue that all the barbarity Reflection is packed with gradually blurs the film into an overly bleak, grim journey. That’s certainly true at times (and again, could it be any different?) but I fear that criticizing it on those grounds would be to play in the director’s hands. That war is a numbing, soul-crushing machine is exactly the point Reflection, and Atlantis before it, is trying to argue. Hardly a novel one, sure, but the autopsy Vasyanovych yields of his damned hero holds a continued emotional tone for a terrifying and terrifyingly impressive length of time. 
I left Reflection nursing a strange déjà-vu. Something about the glacial aura emanating from Vasyanovich’s film brought me back to another I’d caught a day before, Michel Franco’s Sundown. Just a year ago, Franco had nabbed a Grand Jury Prize here on the Lido for his New Order. Pitted against the more minimalist, refrained style and content of his previous dramas, that one was a curious outlier: it was the grandest and most ambitious project the Mexican director had ever tackled, featuring thousands of extras in a tale of a revolution gone wrong. The good news, for those who enjoyed Franco’s earlier work, is that Sundown marks a return to their contemplative moods and smaller scales. The bad, as far as I’m concerned, is that it feels much slighter than its predecessors, and all too vapid.
You may argue that’s a function of the hero at its center. Neil Bennett (Tim Roth, here crafting an even icier turn than the in-house caretaker he played in Franco’s 2015 Chronic), is holidaying in Acapulco with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her children Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan). The Bennetts hail from an astoundingly wealthy British family that’s built an empire out of pig farms. They are—ostensibly—a close-knit clan, but when Alice and Neil’s mother dies, cutting the trip short, tension between the four erupts. Pretending to have lost his passport, Neil stays behind in Acapulco, and while the three flock back to Britain, he abandons the luxurious hotel they’d stayed at to begin a solo retreat in one of the town’s less expensive and less secure neighborhoods. Alice calls, and Neil ignores her, finding solace in the company of a new flame, Berenice (Iazua Larios), and a smattering of locals. Two weeks pass before the woman returns to confront her estranged brother—a trip that gives way to a tragedy of life-shattering consequences for everyone involved.
Apathetic, aloof, and utterly detached from the disintegration unravelling around him, Neil is possibly the most anodyne and hermetic character Franco has ever crafted. It’s telling the director should claim the film has shades of Albert Camus’s 1942 novella The Stranger. Long before we’re told of Neil’s medical condition, the man shuffles along Acapulco wrestling with an existential impasse, a resignation that turns him into an automaton, an empty chrysalis decomposing under the scorching sun. Even when he’s busy courting, drinking, and sleeping with Berenice there’s very little that suggests an actual interest in any of those things; as written by Franco and embodied by Roth, Neil is less the sum of his actions than an amalgam of knee-jerk reactions to basic urges and impulses. I stress all this because, hard as I tried, I found it difficult to connect with him in any meaningful way, much less to invest myself in his plight. And the analogies with Camus only hold up to a point; Sundown carries little of that book’s psychological depth, or the ambiguity that made it possible to both condemn and empathize with its protagonist.
I suspect those who took issues with the politics of representation in New Order may see Sundown succumb to similar problems. Here too, Mexico—via its synecdoche, Acapulco—is couched as a land teeming with inescapable, chronic violence, and the white elite is pitted against an unruly, indigenous, non-white underworld. Halfway through, Neil is drinking by the beach when a man is shot dead a few feet away, a murder that portends the horrifying events that will befall the Bennetts later. In interviews, Franco has stated Sundown is both a reflection of the country’s inability to address rampant violence, and a plea to refuse its normalization. I’m not entirely sure it works as either. Sure, no spectacle is made of those bouts of horror, but the film ultimately behaves as its protagonist: it’s a laconic and muted journey that strives for a pathos its limited emotional range never quite supports.
El Gran Movimiento
A far cry from Franco’s underwhelming drama, Kiro Russo’s El Gran Movimiento was, together with Ancarani’s Atlantide, one of the finest I saw in the Orizzonti sidebar, and one of the edition’s greatest surprises. In more ways than one, Russo’s second feature doubles as a sequel to his 2016 Locarno prizewinning feature debut, Dark Skull, which trailed after troublemaker Elder (Julio César Ticona) as he found work in his late father’s mine. Played again by Ticona, Elder bops up again in Movimiento, only this time the young man has been fired from the mine for no apparent reason, and has marched all the way to La Paz with a platoon of fellow workers to seek justice and new employment. To no avail. Beaten by the cops, he roams the capital with a couple of pals, drumming up cash through all manners of menial jobs, a back-breaking series of gigs that see him schlep up street markets carrying furniture, watermelons, and bags of onions. His health starts deteriorating: a dry, persistent cough leaves him staggering around the slums. “He swallowed a lot of dust in the mine,” his mates offer, but in Movimiento, the dust is everywhere in the city too: the La Paz we are ushered into is a sprawling cradle of rubble and dirt, an endless procession of derelict buildings, neon-lit bars and makeshift dormitories.
Countless are the films that aspire to turn their settings into a character of its own, only a handful that succeed, and an even tinier number that actually manage to establish a genuine relationship between humans and the space they inhabit. Movimiento is one such rare, luminous case. Russo has claimed he was after a “symphony of the city,” and he’s achieved just that. A cacophony of urban sounds thrums all along Elder’s odyssey—sirens, alarms, cars honking, machines whirring and chugging. Yet those clangs do not exist as mere background noise; they exert a kind of gravitational pull between man and city, amplifying his alienation and sickness. Movimiento opens with a view of La Paz—and how humbling is the metropolis, as shot by Pablo Paniagua: a maze whose outskirts crawl all the way up to the nearest mountains, making you feel as though the whole place grew out of a prehistorical crater. Slow pans encompass its immensity, and recurrent zoom-ins single out details of the urban infrastructure before the film finds and homes in on Elder. But detours abound, moments when the camera abandons the man to listen to all the things pulsating all around him. There’s a parallel storyline following a wizened man, Max (Max Eduardo Bautista Uchasara), who saunters into the film (like the old shepherd in Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il Buco) as a custodian of the forests circling the city, a mystic figure in a tale that’s filled with them, sharing a near-symbiotic rapport with those windswept surroundings. And there’s Mama Panchita (Francisca Arce de Aro), who claims to remember Elder’s mother and offers to help. How exactly are the two related to the young man? Can they save him?
There is about Movimiento a dream-like quality that makes watching it akin to experiencing a kind seance, a communing with an otherworldly realm. Hallucinations pave the way of Elder’s meanderings, growing more and more spectral as his health worsens. A white dog rushes into the frame (a stand-in for Max?), while the old man eventually morphs into a phantom of his own, a shaman speaking tongues while pirouetting around an ailing Elder. Paniagua shoots in super 16, gracing the film with a granular texture that makes images feel alive, lived-in, and throbbing. And Russo finds room to stage some hypnotic dances—one of them choreographed in the dead of night, an oneiric sequence that jolted me back to the cinema of Jia Zhang-ke. Forgoing an overarching narrative structure, Movimiento conjures instead a series of impressions, of imagined images, but the web of details Russo collects in his peripatetic journey have a thread to them: they envelop Elder and audience in an almost tangible lattice of solidarity. Just as I thought Venice was lacking in experimental, inventive titles, here’s one that makes up for it all—truly one of the festival’s finest.


Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2021Valentyn VasyanovychMichel FrancoKiro RussoFestivals
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