Locarno 2023 review: Stepne (Maryna Vroda)

Stepne is a melancholic reminder of how the past, present, and future are all likely intertwined.”

As part of Locarno’s International Competition, Cannes Short Palme d’Or winner Maryna Vroda (Kross, 2011) makes the leap to feature-length films with a harrowing story of a man returning to his past while understanding how history is still connected to what’s happening in the present.

We follow Anatoly (Oleksandr Maksiakov) as he returns to his hometown to take care of his ailing mother. What started as a simple story of a man going home ends up being magnified as he starts reconnecting with the people from this old and almost forgotten village – his former flame, his brother who lives nearby, and his own mother who barely recognizes him anymore. Before her passing she refers to a treasure she had buried somewhere in their house.

Location plays a huge part in what makes Stepne such an effective piece of film. The moment we see Anatoly in the beginning of the movie traveling back to his childhood home, it already runs a gamut of feelings and emotions, and Vroda depicts all these in her takes – long and patient yet minimalist in their approach. There is a lot one can say in silence, and Stepne thrives in these moments. In the cold, chilly outback, one can say that the town has already detached from the modern world and the isolation of the characters and the townspeople is very much felt.

The film finds its unlikely source of energy and vigor in moments when the townspeople are sharing different tales and stories. Bordering on documentary at this point, Vroda’s decision to keep the conversations flowing and let them talk about a range of topics and experiences (of war, of friendships, of humor, of survival) gives an additional layer of perspective in understanding the people from this place. While they have managed to survive all that and more, it also becomes clear that they were in a much better position then. Including non-professional actors during these scenes provides more authenticity in making these scenes work and in connecting to the audience.

Stepne makes no explicit mention of anything about the current situation in Ukraine – likely deliberate and, if you ask me, a suitable choice when looked at from a holistic point of view. After all, one can already have a feel for the environment these people have lived through in this remote and almost alienated place. Stepne is a melancholic reminder of how the past, present, and future are all likely intertwined – the collective experience of what a person or a place went through, the repercussions it brought to the people, and where it goes from there. There can never be rewriting of any history, and it needs to be acknowledged in order to move forward.