‘Voices From Chernobyl’ (‘La Supplication’): Film Review

VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL - still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of La Huit
A formally impressive if weighty meditation on a nuclear disaster.

Director Pol Crutchen adapts Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s book for this official foreign-language Oscar submission from Luxembourg.

It’s been more than 30 years since the Chernobyl disaster wreaked havoc on large swaths of the Soviet Union, leaving countless victims and billions of damage in its wake. Yet just as radioactive isotopes can sometimes take centuries to decay, the effects of one of the worst industrial accidents in history are still very much felt to this day.

In the austere film essay Voices From Chernobyl (The Supplication), adapted from a 1997 oral history by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, the remnants of the catastrophe are seen in the abandoned, dystopian landscapes that now mark the Ukrainian city of Pripyat nearby where the reactor was located, and heard through the words of survivors recalling the short- and long-term horrors of nuclear meltdown.

Directed by the Luxemburgian filmmaker Pol Crutchen (Never Die Young), whose experimental approach uses sounds and images in ways that are both captivating and rather heavy-handed, this solemn meditation on Chernobyl’s countless victims has already garnered awards at festivals in the U.S. and Europe. As Lux’s official foreign-language Oscar entry, it should continue to receive attention on the international fest circuit following a recent television broadcast on Arte in France and Germany.

With virtually no dialogue and a continuous stream of voiceovers — recited by French actors like Eric Caravaca, Laurence Cote and Salome SteveninCrutchen’s exposé remains as faithful as possible to Alexievich’s text, which was culled from hundreds of interviews conducted over a 10-year period following the 1986 crisis. The voices relate the suffering of men, women and children exposed to lethal levels of radiation, some of them in the immediate and others from contaminated parents who, like many of the locals, were misinformed by the Soviet authorities as to the true danger of their surroundings. (“We talk about a catastrophe, but it was a war,” explains one survivor.)

These testimonies, including a harrowing one about a mother raising her severely deformed daughter, are accompanied by glimpses of a once functioning city that has since become a complete ghost town, with entire blocks of deserted housing projects and factories overgrown with weeds. Shot in richly textured HD by cinematographer Jerzy Palacz, the imagery — some of which features actors silently portraying the survivors — brings to mind the rain-soaked ruins of Andrei Tarkvosky’s Stalker, as if the “Zone” from that movie had been brought to life in the aftermath of Chernobyl.

Although Crutchen’s intentions are admirable, and the words of Alexievich certainly worthy of attention, Voices is sometimes overloaded by weighty symbolism (a naked woman staring up from beneath the water of a bathtub; a young girl in a peasant dress looking right at the camera), while the combination of hyper-stylized documentary scenes with people reciting stories of death and disease can grow redundant over time.

If anything, the movie makes one want to delve into the original book to learn more about the incident, instead of watching an artsy meditation on those who survived it. Still, the director approaches his subject matter with considerable care, and Voices of Chernobyl is ultimately an intriguing addition to a number of works dealing with a disaster whose impact remains difficult to quantify and impossible to fully grasp.  

Production companies: Red Lion, KGP
Cast: Dinara Drukarova, Iryna Voloshyna, Vitaliy Matvienko
Director: Pol Crutchen
Screenwriters: Pol Crutchen, based on the book by Svetlana Alexievich
Producer: Jeanne Geiben
Director of photography: Jerzy Palacz
Production designer: Ivan Levchenko
Costume designers: Tatyana Fedotova, Galina Otenko
Editor: Dominique Gallileni
Composers: Andre Mergenthaler, Luma Luma Earthsounds
Casting directors: Igor Kozak, ALla Samoylenko
Sales: La Huit

In French

Not rated, 86 minutes