IFFR 2023 review: Luka (Jessica Woodworth)

“A bizarre but beautiful meditative film about the fight between dogma and truth and perhaps a more poignant commentary on the stasis of Western society than one might think at first.”

“What is to become of us without barbarians? Those people were a solution of a sort.”

The threat of an unseen enemy is a psychological concept. The fear can come from within, but as seen in our current times can also be stoked from without. Populist politicians conjuring up images of bogeymen rarely reflect a true threat, but are an effective way to instil an innate fear into people’s hearts. Cultivate this for long enough and people start to forget why they actually fear the mirage and let it become their raison d’être, not recognizing they have lost their ability to question.

When at the turn of the 20th century the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy wrote his most famous poem, quoted above, he probably didn’t anticipate it would inspire a good number of works of art decades or even more than a century later. Waiting for the Barbarians is about the stasis of the state, when status quo has become a goal in and of itself and the state’s actions are executed without questions because no one remembers how to ask them. What all of the works inspired by Cavafy have in common is their characters’ adherence to rules and rituals without even knowing why they exist in the first place. One of these is Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, published on the eve of World War II and a seminal work in the development of magic realism in literature. Buzzati’s work in turn was adapted a quarter century later in the 1976 film The Desert of the Tartars, starring Max von Sydow and Jean-Louis Trintignant among others. It is Valerio Zurlini’s film that is closest to Luka, the latest film by Belgian-American director Jessica Woodworth, bringing Cavafy’s ideas to the 21st century at a poignant time (not the first to do so this century, but the Johnny Depp monstrosity from a few years ago is best forgotten). A film about the possibilities of individual choice within a rigid authoritarian system, Luka‘s detached style, bone dry as the desert the story is set in, may keep many an audience at arm’s length, but it belies the underlying poetry of a film that finds its inspiration in a century-long string of works to amalgamate into a singular piece of art. A fantasy story it may be, but Luka strongly resonates in our current times.

Obedience, endurance, sacrifice. These words are drilled into every cadet at a remote northern fort charged with protecting the nation of Kairos (form of government unclear) from what lies beyond. But what does lie beyond? The enemy is never seen, and hasn’t been for generations. The soldiers go through drills and other daily routines, preparing for an invisible threat. When new recruit Luka (Jonas Smulders) arrives it is an event in and of itself. Luka is quickly assimilated into the ranks and strikes up a friendship with Geronimo (Django Schrevens) and Konstantin (Samvel Tadevossian). His ambition is to become a Hawk, a sniper that scans the desolate lands north of the wall that forms the barrier between Kairos and what is on the other side. Initially condemned to menial labor, once Luka gets to prove his worth with a rifle he earns his spot atop the wall. Spying a white horse in enemy territory, an impossibility according to his superiors, triggers a series of events that calls into question everything the occupants of the fortress have always believed in, and becomes a dramatic turning point in the friendship among the three young men.

At the heart of Luka lies a self-fulfilling prophecy that Luka’s superiors, led by the only female in the fortress (an aging general played by Geraldine Chaplin), firmly believe in because it defines them. Their rigidity in idly sitting by and not rocking the boat clashes with Luka’s eager ambitions, a clash of stagnant conservatism and hopeful progressiveness. These polar opposites find themselves visually represented in cinematographer Virginie Surdej’s stark black and white imagery. The dark cavernous halls of the fortress contrast with the washed-out light of the outside world (both shot in Sicily, the flanks of the Etna forming the dangerous lands north of the wall), mirroring the narrow-minded thinking of those in command and the open-minded view of Luka and his friends. The ritualistic, homoerotic group exercises, which at times bring to mind Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, create a strange and tender camaraderie that is relied upon to maintain the status quo. A uniformly strong cast of character actors like Jan Bijvoet and Sam Louwyck, and particularly the actors portraying those in charge, turn Luka into a bizarre but beautiful meditative film about the fight between dogma and truth and perhaps a more poignant commentary on the stasis of Western society than one might think at first.