The repeated Russian invasions of Ukraine have resulted in several notable films that have looked at this “situation” through sad, angry and even ironic eyes. And many of them have been acquired by Film Movement so that we can see them all in one place.
In “Reflection,” a Ukrainian surgeon, his daughter, ex-wife and the ex’s new husband cope with the last Russian assault on the Black Sea state, back in 2014. Writer-director Valentyn Vasyanovych (“Atlantis,” “Black Level”) uses irony, horror and a sober-minded, unspoken acceptance of “this is the way our lives are now” to tell a quiet, harrowing story of one extended family’s experiences of the war.
Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi) brings a present and flowers to a birthday outing for his tween daughter Polina (Nika Myslytska). She bubbles with delight as her father, mother (Nadiya Levchenko) and step-father (Andriy Rymaruk) watch her her suit-up, and then join in the mayhem of a short and splattered paint gun battle.
There’s an observation window for adults to watch the action. Polina, not really reading the room, takes her hit and feigns real injury and death to her mother’s “Not funny at all” scolding. Serhiy is a surgeon dealing with wounded the military hospitals cannot handle. Andriy, the step-dad, is a commando about to go back into the field. And Mom is worried sick about all of this.
The child parrots what the stepfather’s said about “If somebody doesn’t go” (in Ukrainian with subtitles) the war will “come home to us” to her father. Perhaps that unjustly shames Serhiy, because when next we see him, surgeon is in an army ambulance, lost on the unmarked snowy backroads with a comrade st the wheel and wounded men in the truck with them.
One wrong checkpoint later, everybody else is dead and Serhiy meets the Russian (Ighor Shulha) who runs the prison where he’s to be kept. The warden seems interested in the fact that he’s a doctor and curious about whether he was conscripted “or volunteered.”
“Check him,” the mild-mannered sadist quietly orders, and just like that, Serhiy is tortured. His life then becomes a series of interrogations where he’s the doctor relied on to tell the torturers if their victim has passed out, or is dead.
The direct horrors end for Serhiy and he struggles to adjust to a return to “life,” where jogging can get you attacked by now ownerless roaming packs of wild dogs and his ex-wife and daughter are wondering if Andriy will come back.
“Reflection” is shot in shades of overcast gray or pools of light in nighttime gloom.
Vasyanovych is a stylish filmmaker of few words and long, deliberate takes. The ride in the ambulance, climaxing with a shooting and a wreck and Serhiy’s jogging encounters with crazed canines are “action” sequences here. The torture scenes — like everything else, lit, staged and blocked in the center of the frame and acted out without a lot of editing — are drawn out enough to make one grimace and squirm.
A giant garage door at the facility slowly opens, and a big truck with “Humanitarian Aid from the Russian Federation” backs in. It’s actually one of Putin’s “cover up our casualties, cover up our crimes” rolling crematoria.
A bird flies into Serhiy’s apartment window, leaving a grim outline on it that haunts Polina, because here’s a tragedy that is directly in front of her, one she can relate to.
The acting is buttoned-down, for the most part, even the interrogation scenes. There’s little bravado and nothing like sadistic glee from “villains” who know what they are.
The Russians here are insensate brutes, “following orders” or not, monsters doing what they’ve done for a hundred years of state-sponsored terror and oppression.
And the scars they leave behind are glimpsed every day, in every “reflection” of life being lived by those traumatized survivors they leave behind.
The old saying that times of great stress and trauma produce great art is being proven with understated minor masterpieces from Ukraine like “Dombass,” “Bad Roads” and “Reflection.” Here’s wishing they didn’t have to endure that, and hoping that they can get back to the business of making Eastern European sitcoms again, and soon.
Rating: Unrated, graphic violence
Cast: Roman Lutskyi, Nika Myslytska, Nadiya Levchenko, Andriy Rymaruk and Ighor Shulha.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Valentyn Vasyanovych. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 2:05