A criminal seeks redemption in Oleh Sentsov’s Rhino, showing in the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons section. Played by newcomer Serhii Filimonov, Rhino is a delinquent in 1990s Ukraine who is easily drawn into the criminal underworld. His intimidatingly bulky stature makes him a natural fit for collecting money for loan sharks, among other violent acts. His love story with girlfriend Marina (Alina Zevakova) is initially a happy one, but when that goes sour, so does his life.
Sentsov’s film is largely set in flashback, punctuated by a present day confessional between Rhino and a mysterious man in a car. This isn’t a spoon-fed narration, however: much of the action unfolds swiftly and alarmingly, without warning, much as it would in real life. There’s a flavor of classic mafia movies as Rhino is drawn deeper into the world of organized crime, but the specific setting sets this apart, earning it a place in the post-Soviet crime drama genre.
From shoot-outs to orgies in saunas, the events portrayed are grimly fascinating and credible in feel. But this doesn’t dig deep into Rhino’s character, despite the remorseful car scenes. We see him go from rebel to criminal to suddenly regretful: a man seeking vengeance for reasons that are clear, but not tangible emotionally. This is partly because the characters are kept at arms’ length throughout: his partner Marina is particularly neglected, even more so than the wives in many a mafia saga. His sidekick Plus (Yevhen Grygoriev) and crime boss Skull are drawn with fairly broad brush strokes. And neither the script nor the performance from Filimonov help us to understand the complexities of Rhino’s interior life, despite him being an excellent physical fit for the role.
Most notable here are the film’s visual choices, from both the director and cinematographer Bogumił Godfrejów. There’s a distinct tonal difference between the past and the present, and key scenes such as a wedding are shot in an intense, dizzying fashion, spanning the party giddily as guests smash back shots and throw drunken punches with abandon.
A similar visual ambition dominates the early scenes of Rhino’s childhood, when the camera pans around his home in one shot, the timeline suddenly shifting without warning as characters grow up, celebrate, argue, leave home. It’s a very interesting technique, though slightly wearing — it’s a relief when it’s clear that this won’t continue for the entire film.
While its titular character remains something of an enigma, Rhino the film is a convincing, visually inventive depiction of a specific, and very dangerous, world.