76th Venice International Film Festival: Atlantis Review

The year is 2025 – just one year after a war has ended between Ukraine and Russia. A war that has left eastern Ukraine collapsing into a state of disrepair. Hundreds of flooded mines have left local wells and rivers poisoned beyond repair, in a few years this region will be void of any drinking water. Inspired by the deteriorating water quality in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, Valentyn Vasyanovych delves into the environmental destruction that comes from warfare. Reigning as this year’s ‘Best Film’ winner at the Venice Film Festival’s Orizzonti awards, Atlantis is an atmospheric, lifelike and stirring report on the lasting, irreversible effects war has on humankind and the land we live on.

Photo © Atlantis 

Amongst the smoke and rubble lives Sergiy, a former soldier suffering from PTSD who loses his job – the smelter Sergiy works at is shut down after his friend flung himself into a pool of molten. Alike something from Metropolis, hordes of factory workers crowd around a large screen. Their faces illuminated by the picture of a British man who is looking down upon them all to tell them that they are now unemployed. Sombre but not surprised, the workers begin to speculate about the economic future of Ukraine – ‘our grandchildren won’t be able to pay off our debts, in two years it will be a desert here’. They’re undeniably right about the dismal future regarding the land around them, and as soon as Sergiy leaves his factory job he is left meandering the rotten wasteland of eastern Ukraine.

Photo © Atlantis 

Roadsides are filled with graveyards that lay on top of gravel heaps, scientists pick at the land to see if its fit for living, and volunteers dig up dead bodies still scattered across the region. It’s the sight of a country (and a nation of people) that have been abruptly violated. When asked why he won’t leave Ukraine, Sergiy replies how his country is a ‘reservation’ for people like him – ‘It will be harder to live amongst ordinary people, you can’t trick yourself.’ It’s a pessimistic yet brutally honest take on the solidarity of pain and suffering left over by war. Although connecting with ‘ordinary’ people is hard, amongst this wasteland Sergiy finds closeness with Katya – a volunteer who helps exhume corpses. Katya is an emblem of hope and repair for struggling Sergiy. While his worldview is so focused on the past, Katya finds the strength to look to the future and focus on rebuilding her country. Clutching each other for warmth and painted in oranges and reds by a thermographic camera, Vasyanovych shows how there is some solace in shared trauma.

Photo © Atlantis 

Atlantis is a slow and deliberate film. Takes are long and Vasyanovych rarely uses more than one shot per scene. Some filmmakers prefer to use up-close, shaky handheld perspectives to display the unsettled and painful nature of dealing with life post-war. Vasyanovych, instead, makes the audience take a few steps back, using long shots to encompass whole scenes and realities. As Sergiy sits alone in his dark, bare apartment, out his window you can see an entire bloodred sky running over Ukraine – under which numerous factories are churning out billowing fumes. Atlantis opens an audience up to a wider context, using fog-filled skies and vast, never-ending and decrepit landscapes to help formulate a feeling of futility and defeat for audiences. Whilst camera movement within the film is rare, there is one scene where the camera smoothly follows Sergiy as he saves someone from a burning car. The car is parked in the middle of a huge, abandoned industrial estate. As Sergiy rushes to hoist the stranger out of his car, the camera whisks around revealing a grand scale of destruction. Fallen machinery, cranes and collapsed buildings tower over Sergiy as audiences see how what was once means of grand-scale production has now been reduced to debris. Whilst Atlantis is little on dialogue, the film excels in using visual setting to propel a mournful mood and a disheartened sense of loss. 

Photo © Atlantis 

Vasyanovych’s latest film is a straight-from-the-heart warning about the destructive nature of occupation and war. With stunning cinematography and an unbreakable sincerity, Atlantis is beautifully and bravely candid in its message as it explores the achingly painful experience on watching your own country’s land well up and die before you.  

Rating: image-2

Written by Abi Aherne


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