In 2019, Ukrainian multihyphenate Valentyn Vasyanovych won the top prize in Venice’s Horizons program with Atlantis, a haunting imagining of a future when the war between Ukraine and Russia (still ongoing) has finally come to an end. His latest feature, Reflection, in Venice’s main competition this year — and which Vasyanovych wrote, directed, shot and edited himself — forms the second half of a diptych with Atlantis by gazing back to the beginning of the deadly invasion. While the two films’ stories and characters are apparently unrelated, there’s such complex, polyphonic harmony between them that they create a powerful panoramic view of the conflict, one full of ravaging images of horror but also moments of grace, beauty and enduring love.
Even if Reflection ends up winning prizes and travels, like Atlantis, to many further festivals, it’s going to find it tough to break out of the tightly squeezed art house market. That’s only partly due to the depressingly low profile of the war beyond the Ukrainian and Russian news media. Vasyanovych’s austere, unblinking approach to filmmaking, using mostly long, static takes, meticulous composition and deep-focus lenses — sort of like Roy Andersson (Songs From the Second Floor) but without the belly laughs — is a strength aesthetically and, these days, a liability commercially. Woe betide viewers daft enough to try to watch this on too-small a screen, as they’re likely to miss crucial details.
The Bottom Line
Vasyanovych’s exacting approach to mise-en-scène, aided and abetted by his regular production designer, Vladlen Odudenko, is on show straight from the first one-take introductory scene. Kiev-based surgeon Serhiy (Roman Lutskiy) comes to watch his daughter Polina (Nika Myslytska, the director’s daughter) play paintball in a gymnasium-like venue, a treat for her birthday. There he meets up with his, ex-wife Olha (Nadia Levchenko), and her current partner, Andriy (Andriy Rymaruk, the lead in Atlantis, playing a completely different role here). As the kids engage in mock combat and the viewing window into the paintball zone is splattered with candy-colored playtime artillery, the two men politely discuss Andriy’s dangerous military service in the newly started war. Serhiy has not yet volunteered to fight, but he’s already started treating casualties at the hospital, many miles from the frontline.
A simple fade-to-black-and-back transition changes the scene to a bloody hospital operating theater, where Serhiy is doing chest compressions to save a wounded soldier, without success as it turns out. The setup of the shot, with another wide-angle vista through another viewing window, rhymes the scene with the one we just saw and many more to come where windows or windscreens form frames within the frame. In perhaps the most poetically suggestive deployment of the window trope, much later in the film a pigeon flies into the window of Serhiy’s high-rise apartment. He explains to Polina that the bird mistook the reflection of the sky it saw in the window for a clear flight path, making it the fatal victim of an optical illusion.
That, in a strange way, echoes the deaths of several of characters here as they fly suddenly into the almost invisible war zone, a combat arena where many things are not as they seem. That’s especially true of the Russian-speaking soldiers who pretend to be natives of the Donbas or the Crimea region but are really Russian paramilitaries and mercenaries shipped in to help the invaders. Not long into the film, Serhiy, who has come to offer medical support for his fellow Ukrainians, is captured by these Russophones, tortured, imprisoned, and then forced to stand by and observe the torture of other Ukrainians until he’s called upon to determine whether the victims are still alive.
Sticking to the medium-long-shot distancing he more or less maintains throughout, Vasyanovych never cuts to a close-up of the torture or shows more gore than is strictly necessary. But nevertheless, this is an extremely grueling film to watch because of its honest depiction of pain. Shorn of any softening musical non-diegetic soundtrack, there’s nothing to distract or soothe the viewer as Lutskiy and then two other actors bellow all too convincingly in agony, in the case of one while a torturer impales his thigh with a power drill.
However, the cruelty, for once, is not the point. There is a deeper, more nuanced story worked through here about betrayal and redemption, mercy and survival, all played out with great restraint thanks to Lutskiy’s subtle performance. Like Atlantis, in which a man and a woman become a couple while searching for the remains of people killed during the conflict, Reflection is also about loss at first and then about love, but in this case between a father and daughter.
Vasyanovych remarks honestly in the film’s press notes that he cast his daughter Nika because it’s easier to ask your own child to do 19 takes of a scene than to ask someone else’s kid. But Myslytska rewards her father with an open, authentic performance that catches the liminal quality of pre-teens like her character, creatures who want to believe in the fairy-tale promises of religion but are just wising up to the cruelties of life.