Reflection Movie Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

On May 16, Valentin Vasyanovich’s drama “Reflection” finally reaches cinemas. It became the first Ukrainian film in the last three decades to receive the right to compete for the main award at the Venice Film Festival. In the review below we look at what is similar and different between “Reflection” and the director’s previous work “Atlantis”, and also why this film does not fall within the standard framework of the recommendatory nature of any reviews.

Pros:

powerful auteur cinema that is more relevant than ever; harmonious combination of expressive form and important meanings; “Reflection” is, although painful, an important asset of Ukrainian cinema and our culture as a whole;

Minuses:

viewing involves discomfort and pressure on the viewer’s psyche, which is not good under current conditions;

“Reflection”

Genre Drama
Director Valentin Vasyanovich
Cast: Roman Lutsky, Nika Myslitskaya, Nadezhda Levchenko, Andrey Rymaruk, Igor Shulga, Alexander Danilyuk
Premiere cinemas
Year of release 2021
IMDb website

year 2014. The beginning of Russian armed aggression against Ukraine. Surgeon Sergei attends the birthday party of his daughter Polina, where he meets his ex-wife Olga and her current husband Andrei. The latter has just returned from the ATO zone, but does not plan to enjoy a calm, peaceful life and reports that he will soon go to the front again. According to him, Sergei understands that the situation there is extremely difficult.

A little later, he also joins the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Donbass as a military medic, but while transporting a wounded man, he encounters an enemy checkpoint and becomes a prisoner of the Russian army. There, Sergei has to face the horror of torture of Ukrainian soldiers and discover during interrogations whether they are still alive. When fate gives a man a chance to return to his old life, he realizes that it is a priori impossible. “Reflection” involuntarily wants to be compared with Vasyanovich’s previous film “Atlantis”, which in form and mood is made in the same detached and depressive style. The film received a review at the Venice Film Festival and won the Horizons program. The main role there was played by Donbass war veteran Andrei Rymaruk, who also appeared in “Reflection”.

Thus, both films overlap with each other and form a kind of duology on the theme of the Russian-Ukrainian war, where one tells about the beginning of this conflict, and the other moves to 2025, when the hostilities have already ended. However, and Vasyanovich himself admitted this, in Atlantis there is noticeably more room for hope. Indeed, “Reflection” is very far from any hints of optimism and is extremely painful and difficult to watch. This is a harsh and uncompromising auteur cinema, which, at the same time, does not turn into a manipulative propaganda tool. The Ukrainian viewer, unlike the Russian one, does not need to prove who is who – everyone already understands everything. The narratives of “Reflection” are deeper, and Vasyanovich’s means of expression are more complex than in typical genre cinema or, especially, propaganda.

If you are interested in the history of the creation of the project, the director’s thoughts about propaganda cinema as such, as well as about the state of things in Ukrainian cinema during the war, I suggest watching his interview with the Suspilne Novyny TV channel, which took place in the fall of 2022, when the film was presented at the Kyiv week of criticism”:

Watching Gleam is not only a painful experience, but also an impressive one. Watching a movie is difficult not only because of what it shows, but also because of the way it is done. The film inherits the film language of “Atlantis”: here Vasyanovich again demonstrates almost total detachment, but, and this is a paradox, it is not least thanks to her that the main character claims to be the audience’s response. Considerable credit for this goes to Roman Lutsky, whom you may have seen in “Strong Outpost.”

In the monotony of long, static shots with strong compositional centering, there is always something going on. In this continuous static, constant dynamics boils.

It is achieved mainly thanks to deep mise-en-scenes. In the first scene, in the foreground, the characters are engaged in a dialogue, and in the background, the girl Polina is having fun on a symbolic paintball court. Therefore, almost every scene here is a mini-story, with its own drama and climax. And a significant number of them rhyme in a certain way. This is what makes you stick to the screen, even in those moments when viewing becomes very uncomfortable. Actually, Vasyanovich is also fine with allegory. A scary situation involving the death of a special colleague; accordingly, deeply traumatized Sergei; a pigeon hitting an apartment window and falling to death and its symbolic funeral are all interconnected. The doomed bird left a cursed mark on the glass, and removing it, that is, getting rid of the spiritual wound, will not work that easily. Only with time will heavy rain wash away the trace, just as tears, perhaps, will heal the crippled soul.

Formally, the picture can be divided into two segments: the stay in captivity and the further adaptation of the hero to normal life, when he tries to be a father to his child.

In the first case, the viewer will have to witness an indescribably painful scene, which can be interpreted in different ways (as Vasyanovich emphasized in the above-mentioned interview). In the second, the theme of the experience comes to light, when a person who has been in the hell of Russian captivity cannot share his most intimate things even with his family, for fear of condemnation and unwillingness to understand. Thoughts like “is there life after death?”, which, of course, relates to the PTSD factor and is more relevant today than ever, also seem not out of place.

The pessimistic, drawn-out narrative of “Reflection” is supported by completely faded, gray and sad, almost apocalyptic landscapes and locations.

For example, a tattered garage with a Russian truck with the sign “humanitarian aid” in which a mobile crematorium is located. Or when there is constant bad weather outside the window of the main character’s seemingly comfortable apartment. And there is nothing to even dream about musical accompaniment here. All this works to create the appropriate atmosphere and characterize the hero’s catastrophic internal state.

“Reflection” belongs to that category of cinema that you don’t watch as something with a plot, but rather experience and reflect along with the character. Any assessments in relation to such a work would be inappropriate, as well as recommendations (or non-recommendations) to the audience due to the fact that the film can affect the already shaken psyche of each of us. But there is no point in denying the fact that this is a worthwhile and painfully relevant auteur cinema.

Conclusion:

“Reflection” requires psychological stability and perseverance from the viewer, so before watching it you should clearly understand whether you need such a film and right now, in these difficult times.

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