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‘Donbass’ Film Review: Ukraine War Satire Finally Gets US Release

The country’s 2018 Oscar entry — about unrest in 2014 — challenges viewers to be aware of the intricacies of Ukrainian conflicts

When I’m reviewing a movie, I try to go in cold. I want my criticism to come as organically as possible. I don’t want other people’s opinions (or even a plot synopsis or trailer) to color my perspective. This was not the correct move for “Donbass,” the latest drama from director Sergey Loznitsa. 

The film takes place in 2014, at the dawn of pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine that has snowballed into the war we see dominating front pages today. It is an incredibly specific satire that, unless you are aware of the precise ideologies of Eastern Ukraine and their weak points, may not immediately register as a satire at all. After my first screening of “Donbass” (and a few minutes of confused silence), I had to contact a friend who is a scholar of Eurasian studies, do some of my own research, and then watch it again.

This is not an ideal barrier of entry for a film, sure, but at what point is understandability a reasonable barometer for artistic success? If, for example, a white, male film critic said he disliked “Turning Red,” a film about a Chinese teenage girl, because he found it “limiting in its scope,” I would say that that man was experiencing a personal problem, not a cinematic one.

“The Goldfinch” and “Dear Evan Hansen” both bombed in large part because, unless viewers were already fans of the texts on which they were based — an 800-page novel and an unhinged Broadway musical, respectively — they were unlikely to see past both films’ inherent messiness. I found those movies to be more successful than other critics did, but I also had requisite context going in.

I am not well-versed in Ukrainian civil unrest, hence the concluding line of my first round of screening notes: “I UNDERSTAND NOTHING.”

Were “Donbass” a documentary, like much of Loznitsa’s other work, then I might feel comfortable outright panning it, because then its primary job would be to explain this conflict to me. Instead, the primary job of this film is to lampoon it. And lampoon Loznitsa does, to varying degrees of success, while explaining nothing at all. 

Take the opening scene, in which an actress is sitting in a makeup chair. A producer frantically herds her and her fellow players out to a concrete shelter, where they wait out a series of explosions. In the next scene, the same actress can be seen wailing to a newscaster about how terrified she was by the attack. With complete directorial remove, Loznitsa makes it very difficult for laymen to determine whether the Easterners are responding to a real shelling from Western Ukraine or shelling their own citizens to scapegoat them.

The film jumps from vignette to vignette, taking viewers on a journey through the corrupt landscape of Eastern Ukraine, where the news is fake and old ladies pummel a captured Western Ukrainian soldier as they wait for the bus. Once you understand that this is a send-up of these people and not a detached account of their experiences, Loznitsa’s thesis is consistent, if occasionally hammy. The characters’ actions get progressively worse as the film goes on, with the actors’ story serving to bookend the whole ghastly affair.

This is a society obsessed with self-victimization. Its people live in bunkers choked with mold though they have unharmed, luxury apartments waiting aboveground. Its commanders steal civilians’ cars in the name of anti-fascism. Its army murders citizens so that they have something to blame on the West.

The film flows well, with cinematographer Oleg Mutu’s kinetic camera often picking up to follow a character from a background role in one scene to his own story in the next. Interactions play out in long, deliberate takes, adding to both the film’s tension and its deceptive realism. The two-hour runtime feels expeditious, save for one dawdling sequence in a maternity hospital. It’s no wonder that Loznitsa won the Un Certain Regard directing prize at Cannes 2018 for the film. It feels as though he has wrangled an entire uprising’s personality into bite-sized pieces.

But in choosing to paint these (mostly unnamed) citizens as unvaryingly, sometimes monstrously, bad, Loznitsa reveals the very same dogmatic tendencies he seeks to critique. Even a wedding cannot escape his grotesque filter. According to “Donbass,” Ukrainian separatists are so uncivilized that they shout over officiants and even — gasp — let ugly women get married. The other women in this film likewise say more about Loznitsa than they do Eastern Ukraine. Save a few exceptions, all of the women in “Donbass” are grannies, hags, bombshells, and harpies — or they are completely silent.

It has taken this film four years to reach the U.S., though it was Ukraine’s official submission for the 2019 Academy Awards. Perhaps this is apt timing, as Americans are more likely than ever to seek out Ukrainian cinema, particularly a Ukrainian film about the country’s history of war. But the bar for comprehension is high, and its payoff should be taken with a grain of salt. The atrocities of pro-Russian Ukrainians cannot be denied, but neither can their personhood.

“Donbass” opens April 8 in New York and Los Angeles.