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GOCRITIC!

GoCritic! Review: Volcano

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- Our David Katz reviews the Ukrainian film Volcano from Karlovy Vary's East of the West, and references it with titles as diverse as Star Wars, Western and The Revenant

GoCritic! Review: Volcano

There are no actual volcanoes in Volcano [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Roman Bondarchuk
film profile
]
, Ukrainian Roman Bondarchuk’s fiction feature debut, but landforms such as these — plus more abstract concepts — take on inverted guises. The film’s extended-duration opening shot establishes this with flair: an image of polluted, surreally inky water is overtaken by an enormous cargo ship, all captured from a godlike overhead angle. For reference, imagine the iconic opening of Star Wars: A New Hope (1977): that fearful Star Destroyer disrupting a peaceful blanket of stars, albeit shot in a Black Sea shipping port. Later, the film’s title is heeded when a residential area is finally, horribly flooded — but not by lava. Bondarchuk’s script, an absurdist tragicomedy co-written byhis spouse Dar’ya Averchenko and Alla Tyutyunnik, is entrancing: the flooding and other more surprising happenings combine for a harsh, satiric survey of Southern Ukraine’s current regional instability.

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Serhiy Stepansky, credited as sound designer on perhaps the most acclaimed recent Ukranian film, 2014’s The Tribe, plays Lucas, a translator accompanying the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europecheckpoint inspection tour of the Crimean border. Riding over the harsh steppe terrain, their armoured SUV breaks down. Lucas is let out to find better mobile reception. This is not forthcoming. He comes back, and the car has mysteriously vanished. News reports seen on local television report the entire delegate as missing (and the continued lack of phone reception cannot help him, especially to inform his wife back home).

Recalling the premise of last year’s great Western [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Jonas Dornbach
interview: Valeska Grisebach
interview: Valeska Grisebach
film profile
]
by Valeska Grisebach, Lucas is now forced to integrate himself into the local customs when navigating this rural border zone — a place with little cultural overlap with other parts of the country. Of course, the recent Russian annexation of Crimea looms heavily in the background; fear reigns about further inroads from the Russian military, but the local guerrilla forces’ opposing schemes are presented as bizarrely ineffectual. 

Lucas is sheltered by Vova (Viktor Zhdanov, excellently grumpy), who lives alongside his attractive early twenty-something daughter Marushka (Khrystyna Deilyk). Vova’s life and background is fascinating: laid off from a collectively-run fish farm, his severance pay is a supply of industrial superglue — which he sells alongside salvaged scrap metal at a market, sometimes with Lucas in tow.

There’s a gradual impression that Lucas will never return to Kyiv, that he’ll be another government envoy missing in action. As Vova remarks, "Since war started, people wander over here. Some appear, some disappear." Beyond the Grisebach film, Volcano at times recalls postmodern novels in which a protagonist (often an apathetic male) progresses through stations of growing absurdity, such as when Lucas is thrown into a makeshift prison in a carefully hollowed-out field of dead poppies. In line with current fashions in staging film set-pieces, a brawl where Vova and Lucas fight a band of roving thugs is captured in one darting long-take reminiscent of The Revenant. However, this sequence pushes the film’s technical means to its limit, ending with a continuity error involving sudden daybreak. 

When the dreaded mock-eruption finally arrives, Bondarchuk aims to have it both ways on the question of Lucas’s fate: he is both alive and dead, terrestrial and transcended. I loved taking Volcano’s trip to the fearful Black Sea coast, but was deeply thankful I could only observe it from a safe cinema screen.

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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