Toronto Film Review: ‘Atlantis’

Dennis Harvey

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“It took you 10 years to cleanse this region of Soviet propaganda and myths,” says one character to another in “Atlantis,” going on to suggest that the devastation now left behind may never be “cleansed” at all. A strikingly bleak vision of a near future in which Ukraine has won its war with Russia but been left in ruins, this almost abstract drama by multi-hyphenate Valentyn Vasyanovych nabbed the top prize in Venice’s Horizons section.

Its cryptic, rigorously minimalist progress will test the patience of many viewers and present a challenge for commercial placements. Still, this is — not just the Ukraine’s, as this largely depoliticized statement is one of universal relevance.

The only direct we glimpse we get of the war is a chilling opening infrared view of a man being clubbed, then dumped into the grave he’s just been forced to dig. Like much of “Atlantis,” this is a sequence sans backstory, musical accompaniment or even character names.

Then a title informs us that it’s 2025 in Eastern Ukraine, “one year after the end of the war.” Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and a mate are decommissioned soldiers who’ve isolated themselves by living in an otherwise abandoned building. They hew to a militaristic existence by going even farther out into the countryside for frequent target practice, using metal human silhouettes that create a ghostly impression against the snow. Their contact with other people seems limited to work at a steel mill that’s soon to be shut down, further damning the nation’s economic recovery. While Sergiy seems somewhat withdrawn, his mate clearly suffers the worse from PTSD, extreme sleep deprivation leading to an impulsive act of self-destruction.

Now alone, and tacitly blamed for his pal’s violent exit, Sergiy is dispatched on a long-distance errand driving an ex-military vehicle into “the zone.” He’s soon rerouted by one of many crews trying to eradicate remaining Russian mines. Then he encounters two stranded volunteers involved in the business of locating, identifying and properly burying soldiers and other war casualties found in unmarked, often mass graves. After accompanying them on their immediate rounds a bit, he offers his services to help the cause on an ongoing basis.

“Atlantis” consists primarily of prolonged, stationary, symmetrically formal widescreen compositions of activity within various harsh vistas and decrepit interiors. The rare handheld traveling shot, as when Sergiy explores the remains of a bombed-out apartment building, offers little relief. There is severe beauty in these images, albeit of a funereal kind: As little dialogue as Vasyanovych’s script allows, there’s enough to convey that this whole section of the country may have been rendered permanently uninhabitable by toxic pollution from destroyed industries and other aftereffects of war.

Almost always regarded at a distance both physical and emotional, the characters here are just going through the motions of existence, barely alive. When Sergiy comes across a car in flames, from which he pulls one still-breathing woman, the emergency scarcely raises the film’s pulse — confronting death has become routine, almost banal.

Yet that numbed, seemingly hopeless perspective shifts near the end, when a graphically depicted act of spontaneous mutual need marks Sergiy and Katya (Liudmyla Bileka) as two who might still recover their full humanity. It’s a bold gesture that in a different film might have been played for sensationalism or sentimentality. But in this stark context, it signals the stubborn will to survive and even love despite all cause for despair.

There’s humor around the edges of “Atlantis,” notably in the Big Brother-like factory closure announcement scene (which deploys triumph-through-industry clips from a Dziga Vertov film as backdrop). But it’s hardly an easy or ingratiating sit. Depicting a world in which Sergiy’s statement, “I used to live like ordinary people,” seems impossibly nostalgic, it accepts a greatly diminished local future whose fatalism can be metaphorically applied to whatever larger global circumstance you choose. The actors (all chosen for their real-life experiences in the ongoing war) are not asked to convey much individual personality, yet their mundanity carries its own poignance.

As cinematographer and editor in addition to writer, director and producer, Vasyanovych is very much in charge of a vision whose aesthetics are rigidly controlled. The ironically titled “Atlantis” may well alienate some viewers with its austerity, but those willing to tough it out will feel rewarded.

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