Thursday, July 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Atlantis’ Presents the Desolate Aftermath of Armed Conflicts

Director: Valentyn Vasyanovy
Writers: Valentyn Vasyanovy
Stars: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka, Vasyl Antoniak

Synopsis: Eastern Ukraine, 2025. A desert unsuitable for human habitation. Sergiy, a former soldier, is having trouble adapting to his new reality. He meets Katya while on the Black Tulip mission dedicated to exhuming war corpses. Together, they try to return to some sort of normal life in which they are also allowed to fall in love again.


Night. Thermal view. One man digging a grave, while two others bring a victim and beat him to death. The men bury him and leave. This is our merciless introduction to Atlantis, a post-war drama by Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovy. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Set in Ukraine in 2025, Atlantis follows Sergiy (real-life former soldier Andriy Rymaruk). The war with Russia is over and now the people remaining in this desolate place are trying to restart their lives. But with intense cases of PTSD and a complete geographical destruction, how could they recover what is lost? Suicides, terrible work conditions, decimation of buildings and houses, a water crisis, flooded mines, and a feeling of a deserted city surround Sergiy’s traumatized existence.

Although a fictional story, its naturalistic tone and realistic portrayal of an armed conflict could easily disguise the movie as a documentary. In this regard, the feature shares a tragic and impressive link with Notturno (2020), documentary by Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi, which presents the Middle East in its current state after years of international and non-international armed conflicts.

Just as the documentary, Vasyanovy makes little use of music and words in Atlantis. The silence prevails while the camera shows the horrors left after a war. In some instances, nothing really happens, we just witness the existence of those that survived and the way they make themselves useful. Sergiy, for example, is a water truck driver. The director follows him around as he encounters soldiers and activists, or as he takes advantage of the lonesome scenario to take a bath in the middle of the road.

While the story is enough to make this movie memorable, the camera work is unique and captivating. Vasyanovy and his director of photography, Valentyn Vasyanovych, allow the story to be discovered through restricted camera moves. The long single frames of the movie cement its documentary style. Scenes happen, people come in and out of frame, and the camera never moves. This style allows us to appreciate either beautiful scenes – an encounter between two people inside a truck while it is pouring rain outside – and horrific views – the examination of a skeleton in a morgue or the discovery of a mass grave. Sometimes even Sergiy’s presence takes a secondary role. The appreciation of this post-war society takes center stage, regardless of our protagonist’s presence.

Nevertheless, not everything is dreadful. Vasyanovy makes sure to provide a positive note in this dire scenario by introducing signals of love. While the first part of the film is characterized by its harrowing depiction of war, the second part centers on people trying to reconstruct themselves and alleviate some of the pain they are experiencing.

Sergiy’s panorama becomes more hopeful once he meets Kate (Liudmyla Bileka), an anthropologist that works with the Black Tulip mission exhuming war corpses. Taciturn, quiet, and very lonely, Sergiy goes through a discreet emotional evolution by joining Kate in multiple missions to recover bodies of Ukrainian and Russian militaries. The irony of finding human connection in such a context cannot be ignored. This is the reality of conflict.

Through a script written by Vasyanovy himself, we clearly understand the horrors of armed conflicts, the dilemmas of the survivors (should they stay or leave), and, more importantly, the idea that victory has more faces than just occupation or annexation. In one illuminating scene, a woman encourages Sergiy to leave. “So many years of war, just to leave?”, Sergiy asks, unsure of what to do, but certain that this place is his home.

With so many places in the world going through armed conflicts right now, Atlantis works as a cautionary tale. Its haunting camera work offers too many scenes that invite reflection on the consequences of war and the way that its desolation cannot be avoided. While the story offers cautious sources of hope, the reality is that the society presented by Vasyanovy is just a shell of what it once was. As Sergiy declares somewhere in the movie: “It will be harder to live amongst ordinary people, you can’t trick yourself”.

Grade: A


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