The on-screen text in the first few scenes in Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Atlantis establishes the setting: “2025. Eastern Ukraine. One year after the war.” Released in 2019, it’s a prescient and timely film in the context of the rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine in the past few weeks. It helps explain the anxiety Ukraine has – sitting right next to its antagonistic neighbor, unsure what to do* but to adapt a keep-calm attitude. Atlantis fleshes this out via a refreshing take on the theme of war and trauma: throughout the film the emotions are subdued; the dialogue is sparse and minimal; the pace is slow, the long takes studied and painterly, such as the scene above. As far as I can recall, there was not one speck of blood in the film.
Sergey, an ex-soldier from the war who freelances as a driver to deliver potable water across the once-occupied zone, stumbles upon a forlorn Katya who needed her van towed to the nearest town. An archeologist-turned-humanitarian activist, Sergey learns that she exhumes and identifies the war dead for a nonprofit and volunteers to help in his spare time. Together, they navigate grief and hopelessness in a barren winterscape, which in the film is viscerally haunting and potent with meaning as to be considered a character in itself, one that reflects the inner turmoil of Sergey and Katya. With its abandoned factories, temporary graves, and barely any living foliage due to ecological breakdown, it fills in the silences and the lack of dialogue through color and stasis. What I particularly liked in the film was the contrast between heat and frost, creating strong visual vocabularies** that runs deep in the characters and the desolate war zone. As grief and resentment are spelled out in the frigid, dreary dystopia, any instance of fire and warmth seem stark, potent and magnified against it, from pressing a flat iron against a frozen stiff pair of pants, to lighting up firewood for a makeshift outdoor bath, to a glowing furnace that provided repose for a PTSD-addled veteran.
*From a New Yorker interview with Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk:"People know that they cannot influence the process of Russia launching a war. I should also say that there is very little the Ukrainian state can do to deëscalate, because it’s not really escalating in the first place. The Ukrainian state is not in the mood for war. But defending Ukraine is a different story."
**BFI Sound & Sight's Jessica Kiang puts this nicely with an apt image: "...Vasyanovych’s astonishing images have an elemental, wrought-iron formalism, as though they’ve been pulled from livid forges and plunged hissing into vats of water to cool."