Volcano is Roman Bondarchuk‘s debut feature – and it‘s right to warn volcano enthusiasts, there is no actual volcano in the film. But it was the best film I saw at the festival, so that should make up for the lack of volcanoes. Before the screening Bondarchuk declared his support for Oleg Sentsov, a Ukranian director on a hunger strike in a Russian prison, reminding the audience we live in odd times when the gulags of the past are slowly reappearing.
The film itself echoes this. We’re in the wild east, in a land of lawlessness, since the area is governed by neither Kiev nor Kreml. We are technically in the Ukraine, but only technically – and hardly that. Lukas is an interpreter for an OSCE mission that is supposed to report on the situation. But then the car breaks down. Lukas leaves in search of either help or a phone signal but finds neither – and when he returns the car is gone, with all the passengers.
He eventually gets a lift with the eccentric Voro and his daughter Marushka to the next village – but becomes totally stuck there. Buses break down or are hijacked by hooligans, the cops are corrupt, and most people seem very sceptical of this city boy. Yet he slowly becomes almost an adaptive member of the family of Vovo, and Marushka, not to mention Vovo’s mother.
This is a dystopia within reality itself, some of the characters could have been straight out of the set of Mad Max. It’s also a stunningly beautiful and horrifying film, often at the same time, perhaps best epitomised when Lukas gets stuck in a hole in the ground, a shallow hole that is frustratingly just deep enough for it to be impossible to get out of – and instead of focusing on his struggle the camera scans the area and we see a vast field of sunflowers – with a tiny hole in the middle.
And slowly we see how Lukas starts getting used to the place – and seems to lose interest in returning to Kiev. You sort of feel that he is out of touch with his own country – and therefore doesn’t really have a home anymore. He can’t imagine staying but can’t imagine going either, stuck in his own rootlessness. We also witness how the wild takes hold of him, perhaps those are the roots he never knew.
A bit further east we’ll find one of the roots of his clusterfuck. We are in Moscow in the fall of 1999 and Boris Yeltsin is resigning. And those in the know realise that means only one thing: Vladimir Putin will take over. We see the reaction of director Vitaly Mansky’s wife and daughter to the news – and they are certainly not happy. Neither with Putin nor with the intruding camera. I have to admit this beginning was the best thing about the film, I was hoping the film would continue in this vein, Mansky documenting his family as witnesses of the Putin years. But that would probably have ended in divorce – and the Mansky’s are not exactly regular Russians, at least not Mansky himself, he turned out to be in the innermost circle, commissioned to make documentaries about the three men who led the Soviet Union / Russia through the transmission from Soviet communism to Russian capitalism – Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin – and in fact he’s a key player in Putin’s original myth-making, which eventually would seal his hold on the presidency.
The first election victory is celebrated at the election office – but a voice over dampens the celebration as the camera scans the room and recounts where all these original allies of Putin ended up, most of them have either joined the opposition or found another way to oppose Putin, often at a great personal cost. Mansky himself has emigrated to Latvia and it’s highly unlikely his film will be shown in Russia in the near future. It simply seems like most of those people were liberal reformists, who simply picked the wrong horse in the presidential race.
Mansky himself uses some old footage – a lot of it discarded from the propaganda films he made at the time, but the key scenes are his rather intimate informal chats with Putin himself. We also get a good dose (overdose actually) of Yeltsin – and if I was only judging from this film alone, I couldn’t for the life of me understand anybody voting for such a complete buffoon as Yeltsin is in the film, but Putin has some considerate electoral charm, yet even when you feel he’s being completely honest he’s still hard to read – it’s like his KGB past has marked his soul so he’ll always remain in the shadows, beyond our full understanding.
The film itself is an important document, mainly because of this intimate portrayal we got of Putin, something that would be unthinkable today, yet the film is too meandering and lacking in focus to truly illuminate the subject.
My Colourful Hero
It feels to many Putin has ruled Russia forever, but it’s really been less then nineteen years, while his colleague in neighbouring Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has ruled for fives years longer than that and made Belarus one of the most closed-off nations in Europe during his reign. It was isolated enough in the early years of his reign, when Belarus’ last submitted a film for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Awards, in 1996 – which also happens to be the year in which their first submission for 22 years, Crystal Swan, takes place.
Director Darya Zhuk is raised in Belarus but lives and works in America, the same America that Velya, the main protagonist of Crystal Swan, dreams of escaping to. Velya is the odd one out from the first frame – she’s leading a colourful revolution against all the greyness, determined to wear sharp, colourful clothes while everybody around her seems to have been devoured by the greyness.
And she’s stuck in it too. She applies for a travel visa to the US, but her job as a DJ at mostly empty clubs is not bringing home any real income, so in her application she pretends to work at a profitable factory making crystal swans. Yet by accident she writes down a phone number listed in the small town of Krystal – and after the clerk at the embassy tells her that part of the process is calling the employer to verify her story she goes on the nearest bus to Krystal – and after a very difficult introduction to a family in the middle of preparing for a wedding they grudgingly allow her to watch over their phone. Although the phone might not even be working.
Most of the film takes place in this godforsaken place Krystal turns out to be, somehow Velya’s attempt to become an urban citizen of the world led her even further away from the glittering metropolises of the west. Her interaction with the family members are difficult and dramatic – but through it all leading actress Alina Nasibullina lights up the screen, she literally manages to act the (quiet yet determined) colour in the greyness and shows us the struggle of a young modern woman to leave a chauvinistic society that shows no signs of improving anytime soon.
A crazy cult and a very, very angry Nicolas Cage
Velya would probably not have bothered with all those Eastern European films I’ve been going on about, not when there’s plenty American fair on offer. Lets end this in 198os America – but first, check out this little music clip – you might even play it under the rest of the article.
Mandy was one of the three films the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario, Arrival and Prisoners amongst others) had already finished when he passed away early this year. This is one of his most interesting scores and I couldn’t help thinking – is this perhaps the music that was meant to be in Blade Runner 2049, a project Jóhann was attached to until Hans Zimmer took over near the very end. At least you could place the music somewhere between Vangelis’ classic score for the original and Zimmer’s score for the new film. There’s a strong 80s vibe to the music, as well as the film as a whole, 80s nostalgia that is more 80s then many things that are actually from the 80s. It’s a very self-aware b-movie with an exaggerated yet fascinating style and a screen drenched in red.
The film takes place in a very red America, somewhere in an American woodland of 1983. Nicolas Cage is Red and Andrea Riseborough is Mandy, a couple in love who live in a small village in the woods. Early on the beauty of those striking visuals hold your attention – and I’m talking about the first fifteen minutes or so of a two-hour film. Then: enter the cult. Jesus freaks with a hotline to the devil and some strange otherworldly henchmen. They are menacing, sure, but also so terribly pretentious and annoying that they make the next 45 minutes hard to sit through.
But at the half-way point a very important thing happens: Nicolas Cage gets angry. Very, very angry. Perhaps more angry than at any time previously in his career, which probably means angrier than anybody has been in film history up to this point. And that is great fun. Because there is some amazing joy and satisfaction to watch Nicolas Cage this angry, watch him surpass himself in glorious overacting. And all this time there is one constant, Jóhann’s beautiful music.
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson
This was originally a radio segment in Icelandic – which you can listen to here.