As dystopian scenarios feed the maw of pop culture storytelling to an almost tiring degree, plenty of situations around the world need little push to be realized onscreen as unlivable nows and near-futures worthy of our attention. One of them is the ongoing war in Ukraine, since 2014 a multifaceted campaign of aggression and undermining from neighboring Russia that’s as much about grinding down a nation’s soul as it is treating them as some vanquishable enemy.
This is the psychological space within which Ukrainian filmmaker Valentyn Vasyanovych works for his immensely compelling feature “Atlantis,” which imagines an end to hostilities by 2025 but not to the battle within an ex-soldier to determine his place in a gutted world. That road back from devastation is bolstered by bleakly poetic imagery suggestive of an eye fixed and unblinking, almost hypnotized, but also perhaps ready to be coaxed into looking anew.
Steelworkers in a decimated Eastern Ukraine, Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) are military veterans not adjusting very well to the aftermath of a war they thought would bring change but instead has left them embittered and cynical about the future. Ivan takes a drastic way out, while Sergiy’s situation is partly decided by the plant’s closing, a message delivered at a “1984”-absurdist workers meeting in which the factory’s British owner speaks of “new opportunities” and “a competitive Ukraine” and serves complimentary drinks to the just-laid-off. (When the workers immediately start brawling, it’s against projected footage of heroic laborers from Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s Stalinist paean to Ukraine’s industrial might, 1931’s “Enthusiasm,” making for an especially pointed cinema jab from Vasyanovych.)
Sergiy takes a job driving a tanker truck of fresh water to once-occupied, now-inhospitable zones marked by shallow graves, pollution, abandoned factories and land mines. On one of his treks through these gray deserts, he meets Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), a volunteer with a group dedicated to finding, exhuming and identifying the war dead, whichever the side. She tells Sergiy of the strange irony that comes with having a degree in archaeology and doing this work: “It’s like digging up your own history.” (The organization shown in the film, Black Tulip, is a real one.) When Sergiy offers to help her in this grim task, it’s the start of an acceptance that there may be a path forward for him, even in this wretched landscape, even having seen what he’s seen and done what he’s done.
The basic arc of “Atlantis” is that of the PTSD-suffering soldier’s cautious return, but melodrama it isn’t. Vasyanovych — who also acted as cinematographer on this, his fifth feature — has a documentarian’s eye for the power of landscape to contrast the actions of humans and a rigorous filmmaker’s trust in images over explanatory dialogue. There are probably no more than a couple dozen, sparsely spoken shots in “Atlantis,” but each one is bold and efficient, tableaus that ooze an oppressive, weather-beaten funk but also steer us in small, nurtured ways toward its main character’s shifting sense of self.
Vasyanovych also shot his countryman Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's virtuosic 2014 crime drama “The Tribe” — a feast of long, single-camera shots — so it’s not surprising that his deployment of lengthy takes here is just as masterful. Many shots are like short films in and of themselves: a background dumping of slag that as composed looks like Sergiy’s post-apocalyptic thought bubble; his amusingly ingenious repurposing of an earthmover’s separated claw; and, most metaphorically audacious for a movie about life after death in modern Ukraine, a slow push-in from a rainy, dreary outside to a scene of healing intimacy inside the volunteer van’s cramped interior.
In one sense, “Atlantis,” which is Ukraine’s submission for this year’s international feature Oscar, was born out of hope; it at least imagines a post-war Ukraine at a time when conflicts everywhere threaten endlessness. What exists in this visualized afterward may not look like anything, but that’s why we’re fortunate to have artists like Vasyanovych to show us what’s dazzling, strange, tragic, comic, touching and eventually optimistic about the way forward.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.