“Pamfir is a wholly satisfying debut that at times shows virtuoso filmmaking, and while it can’t completely escape its genre trappings, it rises above them through its memorable characters and a strong bit of ethno-cinema at its heart.”
Pamfir (Oleksandr Yatsentyuk) returns to his small hometown in mountainous Western Ukraine after working abroad for several months. After a happy reunion with his family, things quickly turn sour when his son Nazar (Stanislav Potyak) accidentally burns down the town’s prayer house. To pay for the damages Pamfir turns to his old métier of smuggling contraband across the Romanian border, vowing that this will be one last job. As things go in films where petty criminals do that one last job, the whole thing is a disaster, ticking off the local bigwig who runs the town as well as the contraband routes. Suddenly Pamfir’s debt is not with the church but with this miniature oligarch, which ups the stakes and leads him to a path of no return, culminating in a final showdown at the annual traditional carnival.
As with El agua earlier this Quinzaine, Pamfir is another film whose director knows the specific region his story is set in intimately. Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk hails from Western Ukraine, and before this feature debut he made a documentary on the Malanka carnival that plays a big role in Pamfir as his graduation project. Working with mostly debuting actors from the region, some non-professional, Pamfir is laden with authenticity despite being an entry in the well-worn Eastern European gangster film genre. The heavy dose of ethnic elements that colours the film and plays a key role in its climax makes Pamfir rise above the dime-a-dozen films that feature the almost cliché saddle-nosed thugs in black leather jackets, despite the film’s main narrative following the well-trodden path of a small-time criminal who takes on the local mafia boss.
What also elevates Pamfir above mediocrity is a cast that is universally outstanding, led by Yatsentyuk as a beast of a man who will go to any length to protect his family. The actor’s physicality and memorable face already take him a long way, but it’s his emotional outbursts and the love showing through in his interactions with his wife (Solomiya Kyrylova) and his son that make this such a winning performance.
Shot in a wide format, DP Nikita Kuzmenko’s cinematography dictates the rhythm of the film, his restless camera always in motion as if floating on the ubiquitous mountain mists. With many of the scenes being long tracking shots running for several minutes, the sense of danger and disaster lurking around is palpable, as if an unseen force representing the area’s crime lord is keeping an eye on Pamfir all the time. This heightened sense of unease is what drives the film, compounded by an oppressive sound design and locations that are locked in by the mountain forests, where you expect actual versions of the beasts that dominate the carnival costumes to come out at any time.
Pamfir is a story of despair, a story of the borders we dare to cross, literally and figuratively, to protect our own. Pamfir is an honest man who turns into a beast, again literally and figuratively, when he feels that his family’s life is at stake. The film has elements from the tradition of the Western in the man returning home after some time away and having to face the fact that the rules have changed; yet there are also neo-noir influences, mostly in the cinematography and the scenes between Pamfir and Oletsa, the main antagonist, and even some influences from Asian action cinema, Pamfir’s fight with a bunch of goons recalling Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. Pamfir is a wholly satisfying debut that at times shows virtuoso filmmaking, and while it can’t completely escape its genre trappings, it rises above them through its memorable characters and a strong bit of ethno-cinema at its heart.