Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, whose A Gentle Creature, a surreal odyssey through Russia’s bureaucracy, premiered in competition at Cannes just last year and who took a documentary, Victory Day, about Russian nationalists celebrating their country’s triumph over the Third Reich, to the Berlinale earlier this year, has opened the Un Certain Regard program with Donbass. This series of realistically staged vignettes set in the eastern-most region of Ukraine, where war has raged since 2014 between westward-leaning government forces and Putin-backed Russian separatists, has been met with almost universal acclaim from critics so far.
Donbass is “certain to go down as one of the most impressive films of this year’s festival,” declares Blake Williams, dispatching to Filmmaker. He finds it “miraculous in its ability to feel simultaneously urgent” and “also meticulously designed and choreographed.”
The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang admires this “nightmarish human circus of a movie,” though he does concede that it’s “a wearying experience . . . Working with the great Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, [Loznitsa] shoots in long, unblinking takes that draw out the tension to unbearable extremes; it’s as if the director were trying to see how much anger, despair and madness he can pack into the frame without cutting away.”
A running theme throughout is the use on both sides of propaganda, or if you like, fake news. Writing for Sight & Sound, James Lattimer notes that the opening scene “shows a group of extras being made up in a trailer at a film shoot before a production assistant leads them out into what resembles a pitched battle, resulting in a mad chase through a housing complex under fire, captured on shaky, ‘authentic’ hand camera: is this the war itself, or a representation of it? Does that distinction even matter?”
If Lattimer finds that Loznitsa “fails to adequately resolve” the “divide between the more open, even oblique nature of his documentaries and the greater directness of his narrative work,” Notebook editor Daniel Kasman argues that “Donbass is a grave, sometimes blackly, absurdly comic transmission from a region roiling in intimate bloodshed and hatred.” The real “contradiction,” he finds, is “between Loznitsa’s bracingly of-the-moment ‘reporting’ and his film’s tone of resigned weariness.” The result is “fiction filmmaking with combative intent and a powerful sense of necessity.”
More from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4/5), Martyn Conterio (CineVue, 4/5), Mónica Delgado (desistfilm), Leslie Felperin (Hollywood Reporter), Fabien Lemercier (Cineuropa), Jonathan Romney (Screen), Barbara Scharres (RogerEbert.com), and Jay Weissberg (Variety).
Update, 5/27: “In strict terms of craft, Donbass is an impressive achievement,” grants Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage, “but its heavy-handedness nevertheless feels inordinate.”
Introducing his interview with Loznitsa for Film Comment, Eric Hynes notes that it’s “not uncommon for artists to experience tidal waves of productivity, but Loznitsa’s seems to be more about an historical and moral urgency than just creative inspiration.”
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