“Atlantis” is by far one of the bleakest films to come along in quite some time. Over the course of its 106 minutes, it touches on such subjects as PTSD, climate change, suicide, the dark side of capitalism, and the lingering traumas of war, without sugarcoating any of them. At the same time, it's an extremely well-made film that contains some truly extraordinary imagery. The trick for yours truly is to write a review that can somehow convince you to give the film a chance.
The movie is set in the Ukraine in 2025, and we learn via title cards that this is five years after government forces triumphed in battle over pro-Russian separatists. Perhaps “triumphed” is not quite the right word because what has been left behind is a blasted-out hellscape consisting largely of rubble, polluted water, and people still suffering the lingering effects of the traumas of combat. Two such people are Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak), former soldiers who struggle to cope with their obvious cases of PTSD and the realization of how little was gained by their victory. Both are now working in a steel mill that's on the verge of being shuttered by its American owners, and both try to cope by retreating to their militaristic mindsets—we see them engaging in target practice that spirals out of control to the point where they nearly kill each other. Sergiy is barely hanging on but he's actually the stronger of the two, as Ivan allows himself to be swallowed by the darkness in a particularly startling manner.
With the mill officially closing, Sergiy is at loose ends but eventually gets a job driving a truck containing fresh water to areas where such a thing is no longer available. On one trip, he is diverted away by a crew uncovering and defusing land mines near the main road and is flagged down by Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), whose truck has broken down on a remote stretch. It turns out that she and another volunteer have made it their mission to find and retrieve the anonymously buried bodies of the war dead in the hopes of identifying them and giving them proper burials. This is ghastly business, to be sure, but when Sergiy volunteers to help Katya in her duties when he isn’t making water runs, it marks his first tentative steps towards regaining the humanity he had assumed was lost forever.
“Atlantis” is not a plot-driven film by any means. Instead, writer/director Valentyn Vasyanovych is more interested in putting viewers into Sergiy's numbed headspace. He accomplishes this largely through a deliberately detached approach, capturing everything from the bombed-out landscapes to decaying corpses through a series of scenes shot in single extended takes that, save for a couple of exceptions, in which the action unfolds before an unmoving camera. The effect is disconcerting at first but it proves to be the right approach for material that might have been completely unpalatable if presented in a more conventional manner. The cinematography may remind some viewers of filmmakers as varied as Werner Herzog, Chantal Akerman, and Jim Jarmusch, but Vasyanovych has his own distinct vision. It's no surprise that the film won the top prize in the Horizons sidebar of the Venice Film Festival.
It's fascinating that while the movie deals with exceptionally grim material, it never becomes too unbearable to watch. You would think that a movie containing a long and unbroken shot of a couple of doctors methodically stripping and examining a recently excavated corpse would be too much, but Vasyanovych handles this and other similar scenes in a delicate manner; he doesn't shy away from the horrors, and he also refuses to wallow in them. At the same time, there are surprisingly enough moments of quiet and unexpected wit, such as a “1984”-inspired scene in which the steel mill owners announce its closing to the workers, and a wonderfully developed sight gag in which Sergiy transforms his truck into an enormous hot tub in order to have a brief moment of relaxation amidst his ruined surroundings. There's even a climactic moment of intimacy that's all the more startling because of its surroundings—in lesser hands, this scene might have come across as absolutely grotesque but Vasyanovych finds just the right touch to let its humanity come through in a manner that is both touching and convincing.
I recognize that most people are looking for a film that will help them forget the troubles of the world, and not one that will remind people of them. That said, I am certain a few of you will be willing to embrace darker material if presented in an undeniably unique and compelling cinematic approach, all from a filmmaker who has interesting things to say about the world we live in and where it's heading. Those are the people who are likely to embrace “Atlantis,” and they will find it sticking with them long after it has ended.
Now playing in virtual cinemas.