Starkly brilliant Cannes sensation The Tribe may currently be war-torn Ukraine’s most rapturously received cinematic export, but at home Oles Sanin‘s tear-jerkingly patriotic The Guide (Povodyr) is, if anything, an even bigger deal. Emerging over a decade after Sanin’s previous feature Mamay (2003) became Ukraine’s official entry to the foreign language Oscar, this tale of a blind folk musician and his youthful American helper has clearly been tailored with at least one eye on the Academy. But while domestic audiences, buoyed by the country’s prevailing mood of anti-Russian, flag-waving defiance, may well flock to cinemas for the November 14 release — with a four-part TV version reportedly to follow — it’s hard to see this two-dimensional period-piece catching on theatrically elsewhere. Festivals, attracted by the tragic exoticism of the subject-matter, may prove more receptive, with Warsaw in October among the first to bite.
Sanin and his three co-writers take as their backdrop the dreadful inter-war period known in Ukrainian as the ‘Holodomor’, or hunger-extermination, a catastrophe which claimed millions of lives in what was then part of the USSR. The “bread-basket of Europe” suffered awful famines during 1932-33, though the extent to which this was a natural disaster and to which it was at least partly orchestrated and/or exacerbated by Stalin and his goons remains a matter of ferocious controversy. The Guide, however, leaves little room for ambiguity: the Soviets here are, to a man, repellent and murderously immoral, as incarnated by stern military-man Comrade Vladimir (Aleksandr Kobzar).
Tipped off that an American engineer is attempting to pass on information about Stalin’s evil designs on Ukraine to a British journalist in Moscow, Vladimir arranges the murder of the troublesome foreigner — an assassination witnessed by the latter’s young son Peter (half-Ukrainian Michigander Anton Sviatoslav Greene). The kid flees into the countryside, where he befriends Ivan (Stanislav Boklan), a veteran ‘kobzar‘ who delivers mournful laments accompanied by the lute-like stringed instrument known as the bandura. Stalin’s forces are in the midst of mercilessly cracking down on the kobzars, too — but fortunately for Peter — Ivan is much less defenseless than he looks.
Indeed, as persuasively incarnated by stage-experienced Boklan, Ivan displays almost supernatural (or even divine) attributes, exuding a rugged, craggy toughness that recalls some of Rutger Hauer‘s recent roles. Not so much a hobo with a shotgun, more vagabond with a bandura. The pair’s peregrinations through the countryside allow cinematographer Serhii Mykhalchuk to show off Ukraine’s magnificent terrain to considerable effect — in steely, color-leached tones via 2.35:1 widescreen — during a film that strenuously seeks to evoke and celebrate the soul of this long-beleaguered nation.
This soul takes human form in the blind kobzars, ragged wanderers half-Jedi and half-Hobbit, whose “religious and spiritual songs” and bardic-oral traditions are suddenly out of place in a rapidly-industrializing Soviet Union. The disjoint yields very occasional moments of dry humor, in a generally dour and grim picture that builds steadily to a chillingly spectacular conclusion — one that deploys some degree of poetic license regarding the specifics of the kobzars‘ fate. But while this finale packs an undeniable punch, The Guide is generally far too manipulative to be truly effective. Some narrative ellipses in the second half are more jarring than profitably ambiguous, providing further grounds for reckoning that the TV version may provide more suitable space for Sanin’s over-ambitious, nakedly emotive song.
Production company: Pronto Film
Cast: Stanislav Boklan, Anton Sviatoslav Greene, Aleksandr Kobzar, Susana Jamaladinova (aka Jamala), Jeff Burrell, Oleg Primogenov
Director/Editor: Oles Sanin
Screenwriter: Oles Sanin, Alexander Irvanets, Irene Rozdobudko, Paul Volyanskiy
Producers: Maxim Asadchy, Igor Savychenko, Oles Sanin
Cinematographer: Serhii Mykhalchuk
Production designer: Serhii Yakutovych
Composer: Alla Zahaykevych
Sales: Pronto Film, Kiev, Ukraine
No rating, 124 minutes