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Set in the remote badlands of the Pontic-Caspian steppe in southern Ukraine, Volcano is a poetically surreal love letter to an untamed corner of the Wild East. An international co-production between Ukraine, Germany and Monaco, director Roman Bondarchuk’s first dramatic feature is a mix of Kafka-esque road movie and contemporary western, rich in sumptuous visuals and lyrical strangeness. There are hints of David Lynch’s macabre absurdism here, but also some agreeably carnivalesque interludes reminiscent of Federico Fellini, Emir Kusturica and even Wes Anderson. One of the stand-out world premieres at Karlovy Vary Film Festival last week, Volcano continues its Eurofest tour next week with stopovers in Palic and Odessa. More bookings are sure to follow.
However cryptic and disjointed it appears at first, Volcano is a beautifully crafted work with strong screen pedigree. Bondarchuk’s 2015 debut feature, the playful documentary Ukrainian Sheriffs, was Ukraine’s official submission to the foreign-language Oscar race. One of his producers, Michel Merkt, also has a stellar portfolio of Academy-endorsed art house hits including Maren Ade’s Tony Erdmann and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. Theatrical breakout potential for Volcano will depend on astute marketing, but timely political subtext and an Oscar-friendly track record should help.
Volcano opens with an arrestingly lovely sequence, an extended aerial shot of droplets splashing in slow motion onto a dark body of water before a huge, mysterious barge swims into view. Bondarchuk and his cinematographer Vadim Ilkov supply many more such exquisite tableaux, from giant mist-cloaked concrete bridges to endless fields of parched sunflowers stretching off into infinity. Though not always directly related to the plot, these painterly images cumulatively suggest a land of dreamlike otherness and alien beauty. We are through the looking glass, Alice.
Into this crumbling, otherworldly dreamscape comes a group of outsiders from the big city, off the grid and out of their depth. An SUV carrying a team from the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), the UN-like inter-governmental group charged with monitoring events on the ground in war-torn Ukraine, arrives in the sparsely populated border region close to Crimea. When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, interpreter Lukas (Serhiy Stepansky) sets off alone to get help, but he finds few signs of life or even a decent cellphone signal. When he finally returns to the vehicle, it has vanished along with his passengers.
A stranger in a strange land, Lukas then stumbles into a series of unfortunate events, including a disastrous rave party in a student dormitory, a violent encounter with local militia men, a mass brawl that culminates in a fireworks display and a nightmarish spell of imprisonment in a deep pit carved into the heart of a vast sunflower field. Meanwhile, the colorful background cast he encounters include a circus strongman, a mysterious bearded doppelganger and a ghostly choir of singing women whose village was drowned to make way for a hydro-electric dam.
When the wayward plot of Volcano finally settles down, it centers on Lukas becoming a reluctant house guest of tragicomic failed inventor Vovo (Viktor Zhdanov) and his flirtatious daughter Marushka (Khrystyna Deilyk). With his money, passport and papers stolen, this stranded big-city boy has little choice but to stay put and wait to be rescued. But as days stretch into weeks, he finds himself slowly seduced by the laidback lawlessness of this vast, impoverished, sun-scorched region. “It is total anarchy,” Vovo explains. “If you get used to it, you’ll survive.”
Modelling key characters on relatives of his producer and co-writer wife, Dar’ya Averchenko, Bondarchuk conceived Volcano a decade ago, before Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russian-backed forces and Vladimir Putin’s forced annexation of Crimea. While these events inevitably encroach on the drama in places, they never overwhelm the darkly comic central plot. Even without the reality-warping effects of war, it is pretty clear this haunted backwater would still be a unique no man’s land, caught between resentment towards modern Russian military might and bittersweet nostalgia for the relative prosperity of Soviet times. The director’s background in documentaries is a bonus here, grounding the film’s more fanciful magic-realism elements in cool-headed, observational naturalism.
The episodic, zig-zagging, fable-like plot of Volcano will not appeal to all tastes, and some of the local references inevitably get lost in translation. That said, Bondarchuk’s poetic blend of ravishing visuals and pared-down dialogue makes sense in any language. His casting of non-professionals and first-timers is also a bold gamble that pays off. Despite his angular good looks, Stepansky is actually a sound designer by training, with a solid record of offscreen credits including Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s Cannes prize-winner The Tribe. But he acquits himself well in his screen acting debut, his body language softening from fish-out-of-water tension to beatific calm as Lukas sinks ever deeper into the Twilight Zone.
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Production companies: Tato Film, Elemag Pictures GmbH, KNM, South
Cast: Serhiy Stepansky, Viktor Zhdanov, Khrystyna Deilyk
Director: Roman Bondarchuk
Screenwriters: Alla Tyutyunnik, Roman Bondarchuk, Dar’ya Averchenko
Producers: Olena Yershova, Tanja Georgieva, Michel Merkt, Dar’ya Averchenko
Cinematographer: Vadim Ilkov
Editors: Mykola Bazarkin, Heike Parplies
Music: Anton Baibakov
Sales company: Pluto Film Distribution Network, Berlin
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