— Official Competition, Venice International Film Festival, 2022
Ukrainian surgeon Serhiy is captured by the Russian military forces in the conflict zone in Eastern Ukraine and while in captivity, he is exposed to horrifying scenes of humiliation, violence, and indifference towards human life. After his release, he returns to his comfortable middle-class apartment and tries to find a purpose in life by rebuilding his relationship with his daughter and ex-wife. He learns how to be a human being again, how to be a father, and help his daughter, who needs his love and support.
Curator of the program 'Focus: Ukraine – United Kingdom' Karen Krizanovich:
Set in 2014’s Donbas War, filmmaker Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Reflection is a film that could be scripted from the morning news. Heartbreaking and ruthless, Vasyanovych’s fifth feature is a war film certainly. But its concerns are not only death, cruelty and destruction, but also hope, coping and recovery. As editor, writer and director, Vasyanovych’s overall purview is a formal, almost academic approach to framing real-life horror.
As per Vasyanovych’s previous films, the tableaux vivant captures most of the story’s visuals. Whether it is framed through a windscreen, a window or by walls, Reflection uses a sleight of hand to distract our worse fears. Within these formal frames, the horror that plays out before us seems, somehow, unreal. It is as if we are in shock, denying what is happening in front of us as if it is something from which we can awaken. But we cannot. Despite the fictional-feeling frame, what is before us is our reality and from that, we cannot escape.
Each frame has beauty and symmetry. Vasyanovych’s compositions dress reality as cinematic fiction, only to kick the ladder away, leaving us swinging in disbelief. In this way, the beguiling beauty of, say, a drive through the snow, becomes a ploy to make the unthinkable real: this war is happening right now. It’s happening here where things were civilised and peaceful. And it is still happening.
When we’re first introduced to Polina (Nika Myslytska, Vasyanovych’s daughter) it is at a paintball party that seems like army training. She is the daughter of Ukrainian surgeon Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi) who talks about the nearby war with Andriy (Andriy Rymaruk), who just so happens to be the boyfriend of his ex-wife Olha (Nadia Levchenko). Heading out to the war’s frontline, Serhiy is captured by the Russian military forces and tortured. Taken into a bizarre brutalist bunker, the nightmare worsens. Serhiy is forced to participate in the demise of other Ukrainians, including his friend Andriy. Serhiy’s considers suicide. Like the painful wire device that holds Alex’s eyes open in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, we want to shut our eyes but we cannot. We want to hide behind our hands or leave the cinema – anything to avoid seeing what is really happening. And yet the image, as a composition, is pleasing. No wonder, then, that Reflection was also selected to compete in Venice of 2020.
Even as Reflection capitulates into a kind of salvation, the images in its first half are so potent that any calm or attempted redemption seems too little too late. Reflection is an unforgettable movie, wedging so strongly into your mind’s eye that you will never escape. Still, within its ruthless horror, there is a constant plea for peace and healing.