Ukrainian multi-hyphenate Valentyn Vasyanovych returns to the Venice Film Festival with competition title Reflection (Vidblysk). Like his 2019 drama Atlantis, which won best film in the Horizons section and was Ukraine’s 2020 Oscar entry, Reflection takes a stark look at the horrors of the Russian-Ukraine war.
While Atlantis was set in 2025, after the imagined end of the ongoing war, this is set in 2014, the first year of the conflict. Ukrainian surgeon Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi) is attempting to deal with the challenges of his work, and seems uncomfortable when spending time with his daughter, ex-wife and her new partner. He is captured by the Russian military forces in Eastern Ukraine, where he’s forced to assist his captors and to witness brutal torture and humiliation.
Writer-director-cinematographer Vasyanovych presents events in a quiet, matter of fact way, both mimicking the cold detachment of the aggressors and underlining the fact that these terrors do not require sensationalizing. No close ups, music or narration are needed to communicate the pain of a man being tortured. Nor are they necessary to suggest the internal agony of a medic who makes a silent decision to end another’s life to spare him further pain.
Once again, Vasyanovych keeps his camera static and distant from events; sometimes it’s hard to make out exactly what is happening to whom. The formal composition of the frame almost makes it more alarming: we are asked to sit back and watch the action unfold, unable to move or intervene.
This style demands empathy from the audience. Serhiy is not much of a talker, and surely has PTSD, so we are mostly left to imagine his responses to events. But a few key conversations with his daughter suggest he has a poetic bent that is helping him tackle his trauma.
His comfortable modern flat offers a contrast to the misery of the prison; and a large window overlooks the city. It’s into that window that a pigeon crashes, leaving a mark that fascinates his daughter — it’s both upsetting and beautiful. Why did it crash, she asks her father, in a conversation that turns to talk of the afterlife. “It just saw a reflection of the sky on our window,” he replies.
For a man who has witnessed such horrors, is there something admirable about the optimistic delusion of the pigeon? Is it happier imagining that its fate is infinite, before its sudden demise? There are no easy answers in this thought-provoking film from Vasyanovych: another dark and disturbing watch with tiny glimmers of beauty.