"My Joy," the first narrative feature from documetarian Sergei Loznitsa, takes a free-wheeling approach to studying the desolate Russian landscape. Deeply sorrowful and drenched in ambiguity, "My Joy" adopts a patient rhythm that departs from reality while studying it in depth. In the absence of narrative cohesion, it contains a beguiling patchwork of incidents intended to represent a people, a place and the strange entity that results from their combination.
However, the story begins with a simple trajectory. Affable truck driver Georgy (Viktor Nemets) heads down an empty country road with a cargo full of flour. Randomly pulled over by an unnecessarily cruel police officer, he finds himself briefly detained for curious purposes. While the cop seems distracted, Georgy decides to continue on his way, at which point he finds that a mysterious elderly man has entered the vehicle and decided to hitch a ride. That begins a series of oddball encounters: Sitting in traffic, Georgy encounters an adolescent prostitute and tries to save her, only to discover that she likes her job. In the woods, a trio of homeless men initially offer a Georgy a spot at their campfire before knocking him unconscious and stealing his load. Waking up an amnesiac, Georgy enters into the second hour of "My Joy" as a blank slate, wandering from one household to another in the snow-encrusted world without any sense of purpose behind his journey.
A disquieting experience that lacks any soundtrack or conventional exposition, "My Joy" moves between moments of incredible cinematic intrigue and frustrating elusiveness. Georgy's wanderings, and those of the various people he encounters, unravel with the eerie tangents of your average David Lynch enigma, while Loznitsa's roaming camera (aided by Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who shot "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days") gives the impression of the open world often crafted by the Dardenne brothers. Mostly, however, "My Joy" plays like Richard Linklater's "Slacker" if it had a bleak, existential twist; the collage of stories, characters and mentalities come to represent a Russia dominated by lost and jaded souls.
At times, the concept holds more interest than the execution. Drifting between two periods, beginning with the World War II flashback that Georgey's elderly passenger shares, Loznitsa conjures plenty of images and voices but lacks a precise means of tying them together.
Still, the movie contains a mesmerizing visual appeal. The road is the main engine and metaphor, a kind of apocalyptic no-man's land. According to the director in one interview, the winding path is intended to represent "this hierarchic structure where you only have one point of truth and everything else is totally subordinate." One of the characters calls it "an accursed dead end." That same lack of direction prevents "My Joy" from successfully holding onto the national mindset it occasionally nails down. However, Loznitsa supports the ironic title with a dark societal portrait too disconnected for any semblance of joy to sneak in.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Among the last Kino acquisitions made by the late Donald Krim, "My Joy" was picked up after it premiered in competition at Cannes last year. That prestige factor, coupled with some strong reviews, should help it see a decent turnout during its weeklong run at New York's Cinema Village beginning this Friday.