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My Joy (Schastye Moye)

A disturbingly outlandish fable that offers a harsh depiction of Russia’s rural hinterland, “My Joy” was the only debut feature to screen in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was a favorite of many film critics. Like a horror movie directed by Alain Resnais, Sergei Loznitsa’s narrative feature brims with unsavoury characters scrambling for survival in a remote Russian underworld.

While traveling through a region rife with reminders of Russia’s dark history, kind-hearted truck driver Georgy (Viktor Nemets) turns onto a dirt road to bypass a car crash – and to heed a warning that his original route is haunted. As a motley crew of lost souls and vagabonds cross his path – an elderly hitchhiker, a frighteningly young prostitute, a couple of not-so-stoic soldiers – “My Joy”’s startling narrative moves into increasingly bizarre territory.

Loznitsa draws from a pool of provincial anecdotes he collected over 13 years of documentary filmmaking (another quality he shares with Resnais, who also began as a documentarian), conjuring an unsettling vision of small-time Russia. However, it is not this director’s mischievous script that packs the greatest punch; it is his flair for the unexpected, his willingness to take the story in unconventional directions. This is buoyed by his ability to tie numerous narrative strands together, while always leaving them just a little, tantalizingly, loose.

Renowned cinematographer Oleg Mutu (who also shot the Festival favorites “The Death of Mister Lazarescu” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) works with a grimly beautiful palette of black and blue. Don’t let the title fool you. “My Joy” is a dark descent into a world where thieves abound and impunity reigns. [Synopsis courtesy of Dimitri Eipides/Toronto International Film Festival]