Thursday 8 June 2023

The show must go on: "Pamfir"

If you're anything like me, you'll have spent the last two years attempting to nail down where on the Covid timeline individual productions fell, a process complicated by the way lockdown scrambled our sense of chronology and continuity. That cinematic carbon-dating gets trickier still when presented with new Ukrainian films, where the mental challenge is to ascertain where the work stands in relation to current, ongoing Russian aggressions. My best guess is that Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk's Pamfir was turned round in that blissful window of innocence and possibility between the end of lockdown and the subsequent Russian incursion. (It played in Cannes in early summer 2022, which is the biggest clue.) Yet the shifting geopolitical circumstances only lend additional force and poignancy to this tale of a hulking family man - Oleksandr Yatsentyuk's Leonid - who returns from Poland to his homestead on Ukraine's devout agricultural fringes in a bid to see whether conditions are now right for him to make another go of things. His brother, for one, is confident all's well, insisting "the chaos of the Nineties is long gone". But if life and the movies teach us anything, it's that chaos is never too far away. First, Leonid's teenage son burns down the village church, obliging some measure of cover-up. There are mutterings of a pre-existing beef that saw Leonid's father losing an eye. And - slowly but surely - our guy becomes embroiled in a smuggling operation; we feel him sliding back into some old and not entirely healthy habits, thereby setting a bad example to any impressionable onlookers. Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk's point now looks to be that Ukraine had problems enough of its own before Vladimir Putin began sabre-rattling; that, no matter that it was someone's home, this was a house singularly refusing to put itself in order. I'm not so sure this is a film that would make the Ukrainian Tourism Board entirely happy, should there still be anything remaining of the Ukrainian Tourism Board.

Pamfir might have seemed an odd one even before the Wagner Group's interventions. Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk's film keeps threatening to tip over and become another in that recent run of murkily generic, punishingly grim Eastern European crime dramas that have commented, however obliquely, on the merciless free-for-all that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union; a clutch of region-specific references have the effect of keeping us at a distance. Yet there are equally elements that intrigue and fascinate. Leonid's descent into skulduggery is intertwined with - and sometimes literally gets in the way of - preparations for the village's annual carnival, and the two distinct ways of life begin to parallel and mirror one another. The smuggling operation, for one, involves ingesting stimulants before running through the woods in formation with vast boxes strapped to one's back; it has the air of a roadshow or tour even before one junior associate crosses the Romanian border and breathlessly declares "it's my first time abroad". Crime in Pamfir is but spectacle turned 45° or 90° on its side - an alternative escape route now that work has dried up and the circuses everyone used to run away with are widely frowned upon. It's also the source of one of the film's abiding internal tensions. Sukholytkyy-Subchok pits a vigorous local culture against something far less evolved - whatever's out there in the surrounding woods, the beastliness that leads these humans to howl like wolves at one point. Beyond that, you may be on your own. On one side, Pamfir offers forced shit-eating, bear traps, attack dogs and boner pills. On the other: a criminal-hero who heeds and quotes the Good Book, and sincerely wants to do right by his wayward son. Much is thrown open to interpretation, but the overarching idea was perhaps to reframe Ukraine, as a country that has known tragedy and farce and wound up governed by an actor-comedian, as its own form of national theatre - a show that must go on. Either way, what's come to pass over the past year has only heightened the contrast between the lusty, violent, superstitious activity this filmmaker puts on screen, forever teetering on the brink at the border where Béla Tarr meets Emir Kusturica and Aleksey German, and the ghostly footage on the nightly news of cities, towns and villages that have had all the life bombed out of them. Exeunt clowns, fools and day players, pursued by the dogs of war.

Pamfir screens at the Curzon Bloomsbury today and next Thursday, and is also now available to rent via Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema.

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