We first see a churning sludge of wet cement in close-up. Then, after we’re nearly lulled into its grinding trance, a body is tossed into the vat with a shocking thwack, face-down, and is then covered with concrete. Though it will never be made clear whose body this is, carelessly thrown like a rag doll, the force with which it hits the mix reverberates throughout the rest of My Joy. Bodies, living and dead and somewhere in between, heave and collapse with horrific intensity throughout the film, the first feature by Sergei Loznitsa, a Belarus native who has been making acclaimed sociopolitical documentaries, reportedly underseen even in Eastern Europe, since 1996. Though My Joy occasionally flirts with nonfiction conventions (surveying faces with clinical attention, allowing its camera to take in landscapes with pointed exactitude), this is a deeply allegorical work that makes sport of narrative and character in ways that perhaps only someone not enslaved to fiction traditions would dare. At once amusing in its details and frightening in its scope, My Joy is an anguished howl of social disorder. That corpse in the prologue could be anyone caught in its gears.
This is not simply another dispatch from Eastern European hell, though—it’s closer to something abstract and off-kilter like Ilya Khrjanovsky’s 4, but even more rigorously metaphorical in its incorporation of twentieth century Russian history—in this way it might remind some of Alexei Guerman’s masterfully cryptic 1998 Khrustaliov, My Car!, which followed a military doctor’s nightmarish journey towards Stalin’s deathbed. Loznitsa proves himself to be as sophisticated a digressive storyteller as Guerman with My Joy, a tale of multigenerational hardship that’s about nothing less than history’s endless cycle of violence. Full of flashbacks and seeming non sequiturs, My Joy nevertheless stays on a tangible single narrative track, following one man, Georgy (Viktor Nemets), after he packs up his thermos, leaves his wife, and takes off in his truck full of flour sacks through deepest Russia. Many other characters loop through Georgy’s story, and only midway through do we realize the sophisticated cross-hatch-like structure Loznitsa has devised. His storytelling strategy— new characters are introduced in their own compartmentalized scenes before we realize how they fit into Georgy’s travels—gives a special, incorporeal credibility to each and every person on screen. My Joy has the feel of a tapestry, united by one enigmatic central figure. Read Michael Koresky’s review of My Joy.