A sobering, iron-blooded drama about a prisoner of war who survives a hellish ordeal only to return home to a spiritual purgatory, writer-director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Reflection presents a story that hits hard and offers no easy answers. Unfolding in the early days of the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2014, the film follows a surgeon named Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi), whose hospital duties keep him relatively far from the areas of the Donbas region where Ukrainian forces clash with pro-Russian separatists and their Federation allies. Not that Serhiy is isolated from the horrors of the conflict: His hospital has been flooded with so many dying soldiers that he and his exhausted colleagues are turning into unwitting experts on land mines and the ghastly injuries they inflict.
Still, Serhiy can’t shake the feeling that he should be doing more to help his nation and his countrymen. During a paintball birthday party for his teenage daughter, Polina (Nika Mystlytska), he discusses news of the emerging conflict with ex-wife Olha’s (Nadiya Levchenko) new husband, Andrii (Andriy Rymaruk), a Ukrainian special-forces officer who is currently home on leave. The two men are cordial if not chummy, and when Andrii laments that skilled medics are difficult to find on the front lines, Serhiy seems to take his words to heart. (That their conversation is occurring against the backdrop of a neon-spattered, adolescent approximation of guerilla warfare seems lost on the two men, although not on the filmmaker.)
A few months later, Serhiy is hunkered down in the back of a cargo van as it bumps along a snowy road in the Donbas region. Bedeviled by the nocturnal gloom and spotty GPS coverage, the doctor and his driver blunder into a pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) checkpoint. Serhiy is captured, questioned, and, when he refuses to talk, electrocuted into compliance by means of battery cables crimped to his earlobes. Eventually, the surgeon’s captors press him into service as a prison medic, a role that mostly involves checking the DPR’s captives for signs of life following extended torture sessions. When he’s not hovering nearby during interrogations – eyes downcast, shuffling nervously like a beaten dog – Serhiy helps to operate the prison’s mobile crematory oven, disposing of those detainees who have outlived their usefulness. Given the cruelty of his circumstances, it’s hard to begrudge Serhiy his dead-eyed despair, even when it prompts him to attempt to slice his own throat with a dull shard of glass.
Vasyanovych presents these grim events with the icy formal precision that will be familiar to viewers who have seen his superlative, quasi-dystopian drama Atlantis (2019). To those who are new to the Ukrainian auteur’s rigid aesthetic, Reflection may seem like a remarkably listless film at first glance, especially given the grisly, disturbing particulars of its plot. The entire feature is reportedly composed of fewer than 30 medium shots, almost all of which rely on fixed-camera setups and square compositions. (There are at least two exceptions, and there is obvious intentionality in these departures, given the content and placement of said shots.)
Perhaps counterintuitively, the effect achieved by Vasyanovych’s hyper-deliberate approach is invigorating, focusing the viewer’s attention on the wintery texture of his setting, the sensation of perilous confinement, and the fantastic nuances of the actors’ body language. Lutskyi is in every scene of the film, and his performance is a master class in authentic, agonizing physicality – even the way he breathes conveys meaning. Yet it’s not until Reflection’s final shot that the director presents the viewer with a close-up of the man’s face. In the hands of a different filmmaker, this kind of literal standoffishness might have resulted in an anesthetizing detachment, but Vasyanovych has a unique talent for bestowing even the most superficially inert imagery with expressive power.
As disturbing as the events of Serhiy’s captivity prove to be, they only comprise the first half of Reflection, which eventually shifts gears to depict the psychological and spiritual suffering that persists long after the prison’s doors swing open. Following a deeply traumatic encounter with a familiar face, Serhiy is released as a part of a prisoner exchange – although only after he records a video confession in which he pleads guilty to his “terrorist acts” against the DPR. Shuffling back through the door of his cozy downtown apartment in a daze, he stares indifferently at the trivial things that used to matter so much to him – like his vintage vinyl collection, once so fussily maintained.
Meanwhile, the things that indisputably do still matter, such as his relationship with his daughter, have been tarnished by the horrors that he experienced while detained and by the secrets that he will doubtlessly take to his grave. Serhiy puts on a brave face for Polina and his ex, playing the part of the sensitive and indulgent weekend dad. He responds with respectful patience when his daughter gives him the silent treatment and answers honestly but gently when she poses tough questions about faith and death – though not about her MIA stepfather, whose fate Serhiy is justifiably reluctant to reveal. Alone in the curtained gloom of his flat, however, the mask of unruffled fortitude drops, and Serhiy sobs quietly into his hands. Panic seizes him at odd moments: During a chilly morning jog in the woods, a pack of local stray dogs trigger him into bolting like a frightened rabbit, white-knuckling the new self-defense stun gun in his jacket pocket.
Reflection’s depiction of the dehumanizing evils perpetrated by the DPR and its Federation patrons has an undeniable urgency in a year when the still-ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war has escalated to a full-scale invasion. Yet Vasyanovych’s ultimate aim is not to force the viewer to confront the atrocities committed in the name of expansionism, nationalism, or old-fashioned ethnic hatreds. Rather, Reflection is about the jarring return to normalcy that follows liberation – or, more precisely, it’s about how “normal” can be irrecoverably transformed by a traumatizing experience. Many films have depicted the lasting psychological scars inflicted by violence and captivity, and Vasyanovych’s feature doesn’t shy from the way that such experiences can forever burden survivors, remapping their brains in life-altering ways. However, Reflection is the rare film that goes beyond these visceral, enervating aspects of post-war (or post-incarceration) life to reflect on the more subtle realignments that occur in the aftermath of trauma. As Serhiy comes to understand, that which was once comforting can feel startlingly alienating, and questions that once had straightforward answers can vex a restless mind long into the night.
Reflection will be available to rent via virtual cinemas from Film Movement on May 6.