Ukranian director Valentyn Vasyanovych won the hearts of many at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, when his Atlantis won the Orizzonti section. Atlantis was a post-apocalyptic dystopian film in a territory made inhabitable by the war between Russia and Ukraine. Vasyanovych was invited back to the Lido, this time in the Official Competition, to present Reflections, another film about the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine.
Serhiy is Ukranian, he’s a surgeon, he’s divorced with a daughter, Polina. His ex-wife is now partnered with Andryi, a Ukranian soldier who’s acting as Polina’s stepfather. After joining the war to help in a time of need, a series of terrifying events occur to Serhiy: first he’s captured by Russian forces in enemy territory, and as a medical professional, he’s then used by them to assess the conditions of the prisoners tortured by the separatists. His mental state is put gravely to the test when he encounters Andryi again, this time as prisoners. The choices he makes will haunt him and change his life and the lives of the ones he cares for.
The Russo-Ukranian war is clearly a very personal subject for Valentyn Vasyanovych, and it is even more so in relation to the mental condition of the soldiers and everyone else around them after their on-field involvement has come to an end. Reflection is the epitome of that: unflinching and shockingly brutal during the first half, contemplative, even when bleak and dark, during the second half. Shot mostly in a series of fixed, unmoving tableaux, Reflection displays the Ukranian director’s robust sense of mise-en-scène, devolving the narrative focus on images rather than words: in this sense, each of these tableaux is a film itself, recounting episodes of the characters’ lives in their stark naturality. Only in two of these sequences does the camera suddenly move: when Serhiy, captured by the separatists, is taken to the dungeon of his prison, and made to witness the mind-numbing tortures imposed on his fellow soldiers, and when he finds himself attacked by a pack of dogs during a run in a park in Kiev, after his liberation and return to the capital. The unnerving effect of these two sequences makes the choice of shooting an otherwise static film rather questionable, as the cold, distant look of the film doesn’t help the viewer develop any form of attachment to the character of Serhyi. We don’t feel empathy for him, there is no emotional connection to his plight, making his terrifying journey a narrative device rather than a fully formed story, and he only comes alive during his beautiful scenes with his daughter Polina, patiently but nervously awaiting her stepfather’s comeback.
Reflection is a film that aims very high but, despite the technical prowess of its director and a realistic look at war, falls rather flat.
This review is from the 2021 Venice Film Festival.