'When the Trees Fall' ('Koly padayut dereva'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

A new talent sprouts among the forests of the east.

Writer-director Marysia Nikitiuk's debut, a Ukraine-Macedonia-Poland co-production, bowed in the Panorama section of the German fest.

A debut feature bursting with audacity, flair and energetic promise, When the Trees Fall (Koly padayut dereva) propels 31-year-old Ukrainian writer-director Marysia Nikitiuk into the leading ranks of younger filmmakers from eastern/central Europe. Straddling several genres with aplomb — only the odd wobble here and there betrays her greenhorn status — Nikitiuk socks over a full-blooded enterprise punctuated with steamy sex, brutal violence and flights of enigmatic, extravagant fantasy. In terms of established art house names, it could be possibly positioned as Carlos Reygadas crossed with Andrei Zvyagintsev.

Somewhat overlooked in a Berlinale notable for spotlighting new female talents from the continent's eastern fringe — most notably Romania's Golden Bear winner Adina Pintilie (Touch Me Not) and Panorama breakout Ioana Uricaru (Lemonade) — this Ukraine-Poland-Macedonia co-production will flourish in smaller festivals over the coming months. It also warrants a shot at niche theatrical distribution in ex-USSR territories and their neighbors.

There's a familiar whiff of gloomy post-Soviet dystopia in When the Trees Fall's urban scenes, set among the crumbling projects of the small eastern Ukraine city of Lozova. This is the tenebrous backdrop for criminal intrigues in which ex-soldier and ex-jailbird "Scar" (Maksym Samchyk) and his two nogoodnik pals become bloodily embroiled. But while the strikingly handsome Samchyk makes considerable impact on his big-screen debut — casting directors take note — the main focus is actually on his girlfriend Larysa (Anastasia Pustovit), her pint-sized cousin Vitka (Sofia Khalaimova) and the small farming village where they reside.

While Lozova is unambiguously presented as a 21st century hellhole, the unnamed village feels intriguingly unmoored in time. Cars are bygone models; old people trade archaic slang; modes of life and dress don't seem to have changed much in decades; old rivalries and ethnic frictions are seldom far from the surface; and inter-generational strife is epidemic.

As the titles of Nikitiuk's shorts as a director (In TreesMandrake and Rabies) and co-writer (2014's droll, quietly exceptional Fallen Leaves, directed by Masha Kondakova) indicate, she has a particular interest in the natural environment. In collaboration with her two Polish cinematographers Michal Englert and Mateusz Wichlacz, she evocatively conjures the enticing, fecund atmosphere of summer days and nights in deep, dense forest.

We often see these enticing, potentially hazardous zones through Vitka's eyes: There are touches of magical realism along the way, frequently involving a seemingly unremarkable white horse. These "heightened" interludes, boosted by the production design by newcomer Vlad Dudko, are left open to multiple interpretation — indeed, after a certain dramatic development, it's hard to know whether a certain leading character is still living or has passed into a spirit realm.

Profitably juxtaposed with more earthbound sequences — including a pulsating car-chase featuring copious gunfire, executed with considerable action-movie flair (the three credited editors include veteran cutter and recent Andrzej Wajda collaborator Milenia Fiedler) — these hallucinatory passages increasingly tiptoe into the realm of the supernatural.

The payoff is startling and certain to provoke debate: The closing moments, after a nifty nod to Tarkovsky's Solaris, take a sudden stratospheric leap into full-blown extravagant symbolism. This finale's bizarre and kitschy aspects will bedazzle some and bemuse others, but are in retrospect all of a piece with a film never afraid to push challenge conventional narrative techniques. And next for Nikitiuk? The sky's the limit.

Production companies: Directory Films (with Message Film, Fokus In)
Cast: Anastasia Pustovit, Sofia Khalaimova, Maksym Samchyk, Maria Svizhinska, Petro Pastukhov, Mariia Trepikova, Yevgenii Grygoriev
Director-screenwriter: Marysia Nikitiuk
Producers: Igor Savychenko, Roman Klympush, Volodymyr Filippov, Serge Lavrenyuk, Izabela Wojcik, Violetta Kaminska, Dariusz Jablonski, Darko Basheski
Cinematographers: Michal Englert, Mateusz Wichlacz
Production designer: Vlad Dudko
Costume designer: Kostyantyn Kravets
Editors: Blaze Dulev, Milenia Fiedler, Ivan Bannikov
Composer: Mykyta Moiseiev
Casting director: Alla Samoilenko
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Latido Films, Madrid, Spain (latido@latidofilms.com)

In Ukrainian
89 minutes

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