Venice 2021 review: Reflection (Valentyn Vasyanovych)

“Reflection is a cold and detached film, expertly made but ultimately, to an extent, done in by its technical prowess.”

Since 2014 Eastern Ukraine has been a war zone where the Ukrainian army and separatist forces, backed by Russia, have fought each other tooth and nail. This has been a major ‘inspiration’, for lack of a better word, for Ukrainian cineastes to explore the darker sides of humanity. Just as contemporary Mexican cinema often uses its narco wars as backdrop, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has been a major theme in Ukrainian cinema in recent years, at least as far as festival selections go, with Sergei Loznitsa obviously at the forefront of it. Valentyn Vasyanovych’s first foray into this ‘genre’ was 2019 Orizzonti winner Atlantis, and two years later he has been promoted to the main Competition with his fifth feature film Reflection, a bleak and absolutely brutal look at how violence and humiliation can break a man, and how difficult it is to crawl out of that hole again.

Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi) is a surgeon at a Kiev hospital who volunteers for the warfront when he hears from his ex-wife’s new partner Andriy, a soldier in the Ukrainian forces, that there is a shortage of medical staff. After a night mission goes awry, Serhiy is captured by the separatist army. Learning that he is a surgeon, the leader of the unit that captured him keeps him alive to establish if other prisoners still have a heartbeat or not after they have been tortured during interrogation. The exposure to these horrific practices numbs Serhiy, until the identity of one of the victims hits close to home. After being released in an exchange of hostages, Serhiy has to pick up his life again, trying to build a relationship with his ex-wife and their daughter Polina (Nika Myslytska), who have both been under heavy stress since Andriy went missing. As Serhiy learns what it means to be human again, he also harbors a secret about his time in captivity.

Valentyn Vasyanovych doubled as director and cinematographer on Reflection just as he did on the aforementioned Atlantis, and his experience in cinematography (among others he lensed fellow Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s much lauded The Tribe) combined with his directorial sense of mise-en-scene is the film’s strongest suit. Stark and deeply desolate tableaux, rigidly framed and in deep focus, turn the film into a string of diorama-like scenes that are distancing, keeping the viewer at arm’s length. The result is a certain lack of empathy for Serhiy, even if his pain and dejection can be understood on a base level. This makes his moral dilemma in Reflection‘s second half feel empty, a conundrum that makes sense from a narrative perspective but doesn’t resonate on an emotional level. Reflection is a cold and detached film, expertly made but ultimately, to an extent, done in by its technical prowess.

There is one bright flower growing in the cracks of the concrete though, and that is the way Vasyanovych paints the relationship between Serhiy and Polina in their struggles. He to get structure back into his life and learn what it means to have a normal existence again, if ever he can. She to make peace with the idea that Andriy might never come back and to figure out how that idea falls into her worldview. Both actors play well off each other which makes their relationship worth the emotional investment that Reflection is otherwise sorely missing, a relief after the grim first hour being a depressing (but beautifully shot) streak of cruelty. Aesthetically pleasing, Reflection is a mixed bag that successfully shows how difficult reintegration into society can be for those who have been subjected to the horrors of war, but lacks the emotional punch to really have staying power.