Land of Oblivion: Venice Film Review

Well-intentioned but underwhelming drama of the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath

Israeli writer-director Michale Boganim explores the dramatic ramifications of Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster in this French/German/Polish/Ukrainian co-production

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster in what’s now Ukraine, a seminal event in recent history which hastened the demise of the Soviet Union as well as having a catastrophic impact on the area. That fateful weekend in April 1986 has already been dramatized earlier this year with stunning effect by Aleksandr Mindadze in February’s Berlinale competitor Innocent Saturday.

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Now Israeli writer-director Michale Boganim has a go with her feature debut, Land of Oblivion (La terre outragée), a much more conventional, straightforward and unambitious treatment of the theme. Arriving a little late to capitalize on the April anniversary itself, the film’s inadvertent post-Fukushima topicality will doubtless yield festival berths, especially among the increasing number of such events focusing on ecological matters.
Commercially speaking this French production with German, Ukrainianand Polish support is no easy sell, relying on the renown of Ukraine’s Bond girl Olga Kurylenko(Quantum of Solace) to stoke interest in non-Russian-speaking territories. TV sales look more likely for a movie, which examines a major event principally through its melodramatic consequences for one individual and one family.

The first 40 minutes recreate the immediate impact of the disaster with particular emphasis on the immediate, horrific environment effects before Boganim flashing forward a decade to observe the lives of a small handful of survivors. The opening section is by some way the more powerful, playing like a kind of eco-horror movie as folk helplessly endure what we and they soon realize is a particularly nasty rainfall in more ways than one.
These regular drenchings are a major divergence from Mindadze’s version, in which the weekend is dry and hot. But regardless of which film is more “correct” in its meteorology, Land of Oblivion’s interpretation is valid given the much wider impact of the acid rain which, blown by the winds, fell across much of the European continent over the following weeks with enduringly harmful consequences.

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And whereas Innocent Saturday sticks with limpet-like persistence to a sole protagonist, Land of Oblivion cuts between various groups of people including bride Anya (Kurylenko) and groom Piotr (Nikita Emshanov), the latter a fireman summed to the burning power station in the middle of his nuptials. Piotr thus becomes one of the very first victims of Chernobyl radiation, leaving Anya a shellshocked widow. Ten years later, she is at a crossroads in her life, choosing between two lovers, and between leaving the country and staying in her job as a guide showing tourists around the eerily deserted Chernobyl and its dormitory-city Pripyat.

During her lectures, Anna perpetuates the fallacy that Chernobyl is the Russian word for “Wormwood,” thus reinforcing the widely held misapprehension that the disaster was foretold in the Book of Revelation (which is presumably why Boganim gives Olga’s locker the Satanic number 666.) This isn’t the only surprising inaccuracy in a screenplay, which has Russian speakers talking to each other without ever once using the standard patronymic form of address (“Vladimir Ivanovich”, “Svetlana Petrovna”, etc) – a scriptwriting decision that will bemuse any viewer from the states of the former USSR.

More problematic still is the slightly banal air of soap opera which permeates the longer 1996 section, which alternates between Olga’s romantic complications and the quest of headstrong teenager Valery (Ilya Iosifov) for the scientist father who went missing during the disaster. This latter element is developed in half-hearted fashion, and indeed is left frustratingly unfinished by the time the end credits finally roll.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production companies: Les Films du Poisson, Vandertastic, Apple Films
Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Nikita Emshanov,Andrzej Chyra, Ilya Iosifov, Nicolas Wanczycki
Director: Michale Boganim
Screenwriters: Anne Weil, Michale Boganim.
Producers: Laetitia Gonzalez, Yael Fogiel, Hanneke Van Der Tas, Dariusz Jablobski
Director of photography: Yorgos Arvanitis, Antoine Heberlé
Production designer: Bruno Margery
Music: Leszek Mozdzer
Editors: Anne Weil, Thierry Derocles
Sales: Le Pacte, Paris
No rating, 113 minutes