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EIFF 2019: Volcano (2018) dir: Roman Bondarchuk

Misadventures in rural Ukraine

This Ukrainian-made black comedy-drama features Serhiy Stepansky as Lukas, an OSCE monitor from Kyiv who is on a special mission near the border with Crimea. His troubles start when the SUV carrying his co-workers breaks down at a filling station in the middle of nowhere with no mobile reception available.His boss instructs him to find a spot from where he might call someone.

After a while, he manages to flag down a truck driven by a local who will drive him to the next village. A young woman named Marushka, who lives with her father Vova, is along for the ride. Unfortunately, they quickly discover that the SUV, containing the rest of the team, has disappeared from the spot where it broke down. When Marushka offers him the opportunity to stay the night, he gets involved in a series of misadventures which only get weirder and more dangerous each time.

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Absurdity and underlying humanity abound in this surreal comedy-drama

Volcano is an ugly yet beautiful, somewhat dreamlike film which very effectively depicts how life can go on in the most god-forsaken of places. Its Ukrainian setting is crucial because of the way in which it highlights the sheer schisms to be seen within this fraught country. Not only has it been torn apart by war - but also by economics. While Lukas is a wealthy city man who can afford a 500 Euro watch, Vova is a former factory boss who saw his Communist-era factory get torn down and now aspires to such desperate schemes as selling old glue and digging up scrap metal. Local youths, police and soldiers alike look for any excuse to beat, imprison, bribe or steal from our hapless protagonist. This part of the country is a place where the normal rules of law don’t even apply to those who should be enforcing them, let alone to everyone else.

watermelon sign in Volcano (2018)

There are many striking, memorable images here. Director Roman Bondarchuk prefers lengthy, casually observational shots which take in the vast steppe landscape and the various random vignettes which occur therein, ranging from soldiers beating up a man in a field of withered crops, to the vision of a group of ghostly women singing choral songs in the distance. Most memorably of all, there’s the sight of Lukas stuck in a pit as observed by an ever-levitating drone shot revealing the barren landscape surrounding him.It’s a perfect metaphor to represent how trapped he is. While none of this sounds especially funny on paper, everything comes across as so surreal that you can’t help but let out an uncomfortable chuckle.

Actor Serhiy Stepansky plays things in a restrained and entirely straight manner, occasionally expressing sheer frustration at his predicament but largely just remaining stoically tight-lipped, seemingly in some desperate attempt to maintain his sanity. On the other hand, Viktor Zhdanov’s Vova is a man who has long since given up on maintaining composure and has become something of a resigned and frankly self-serving character. At the same time, however, he possesses a residual humanity about him that ultimately inspires pity rather than revulsion. The third “star” here is Khrystyna Deilyk, a beautiful siren who inexorably draws Lukas into this peculiar backwater world.

While Volcano’s tone may seem frankly absurd, it also possesses an underlying humanity just waiting to burst out.

Runtime: 106 mins

Dir: Roman Bondarchuk

Script: Alla Tyutyunnik, Roman Bondarchuk, Dar'ya Averchenko

Starring: Serhiy Stepansky, Viktor Zhdanov, Khrystyna Deilyk

Rating: ☆☆☆☆1/2

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