“Land of Oblivion“
It is 25 years ago in the small Ukrainian town of Pripyat. People are fishing. A boy goes to look at the tree he and his father planted. A woman prepares for her wedding. And then it starts to rain – not, in itself, a doom-laden event, except if you know that Pripyat was essentially the ground zero town for the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, and what we are really watching is more like a snapshot of Pompeii in the days before Vesuvius erupted.
In the quarter of a century since it happened, what’s perhaps most shocking about Chernobyl is, for a disaster of its scale, how little it has been memorialized, in film or, really, anywhere else. With “Land of Oblivion” Israeli writer-director Michale Boganim wisely does not attempt to redress this imbalance in one fell swoop, instead honing the focus onto the before-and-after stories of a few of Pripiat’s aforementioned inhabitants. Chief among them is Anya (Olga Kurylenko) whose wedding is marred when her new husband is called away from the reception to help fight a “forest fire,” and never returns. She is later brutally informed that, having been exposed to lethal quantities of radiation, he has been sent to Moscow, presumably to die. Meanwhile one of the off-duty plant engineers, told by phone of the disaster but forbidden from raising the alarm, sends his wife and son off, wanders around the town with an ever-crackling geiger counter and gives out 30 kopek umbrellas to mystified passersby in a futile attempt to shield them from the poison rain.
In these early sections the film is strong, and if the prelapsarian vibe of bucolic, pretty Pripyat may seem a little romanticised, then it can somewhat be justified as a device to ally us closer to our protagonists: for them, the memories of the home that was taken from them as they were evacuated away by the busload in the subsequent days, would probably be a little rose-tinted. Somewhat jarringly, though, the film then abruptly jumps to 10 years later, and picks up on Anya who now runs tours of the Chernobyl site, leads a rather solitary existence despite romantic possibilites, and discovers she is losing her hair, and the son of the engineer, now a teenager, who in contrast to his mother, refuses to believe his father is dead.
Perhaps unavoidably, the second half never quite manages to achieve the same intensity as the first, but it does slowly find its rhythm, and so the film rather eloquently builds a picture not just of the lives shattered by disaster, but also these after-lives that are defined by it. And while the details are specific to Chernobyl, the themes of longing for a lost home and for all the potential versions of yourself that circumstance has killed off, are universal. Kurylenko is a small revelation in her role: tired, lonely and haunted, she is a far cry from the Bond Girl we’ve known until now. Shame, then, that the film ends unsatisfactorily. The subplot about the boy and his father is left maddeningly unresolved, and while for the most part the tightness of the focus on the human cost of disaster is a laudable avoidance of hysterical over-dramatization, it feels like there is a slight missed opportunity at the conclusion for an extra turn of the screw. No, “Land of Oblivion” is not the definitive Chernobyl movie, but it does serve the important function, until that film comes along, of opening up the subject for further cinematic discussion. For now though, it’s a well-observed, heartfelt, small film whose colours burn all the brighter for the relative emptiness of the canvas onto which they are projected. [B]
Ever watched Paul Haggis‘ Best Picture-robbing “Crash” and found yourself wishing it contained further extraneous subplots and was in Swiss-German? If so, have we got the movie for you! Director Cihan Inan‘s “180°” follows the same format (loosely interconnected stories centering on a car accident) and themes (racism, sexism, the moral price of professional success) so precisely that were the timing reversed, one would undoubtedly accuse Haggis of plundering the smaller-budgeted foreign film for his 2005 fable. But as it stands, the similiarty of “180°” to that picture is more baffling than sinister.
In urban Switzerland, a young boy from a Turkish immigrant background is embarking on a fledging relationship with a pretty blond schoolfriend, when they are hit by a car. She is killed outright and he falls into a coma; the yuppie arsehole who was driving bickers cravenly with his trophy girlfriend about Doing The Right Thing vs Ruining My Career; and the families of the two young people collide with each other in mutual misunderstanding and suspicion, while coming apart internally. The coincidences and happenstances that this sort of multi-narrative film relies on abound, and are too tiresome to list out, suffice to say it’s stuff like the girl’s mother discovering her death by seeing her belongings at the morgue of the hospital where she works; or her friend and fellow nurse’s casually racist boyfriend smoking in a doorway which happens to overlook the kebab shop that is about to be opened by the Turkish family; and so on. And we suppose if you dig this conceit, the film works well enough, but if you don’t, then it suffers from exactly the same problems its bigger-budgeted counterparts like “Crash,” “Babel” and “21 Grams” do: it grasps for emotional and philosophical heft by asking us to draw weighty conclusions from confluences of completely circumstantial plot contrivances.
Additionally, here we get a further plot strand that bookends the action but seems to have only the most tenuous links to the main story: a mid-level manager loses it one day and kills three co-workers before going on the run. Unless we missed something (entirely possible in this genre where we’re asked to believe that every framed photo, every minor character, every radio news report has Deep Significance), his story seems to be there solely to check another few social issues off the list of potential themes for modern drama, in being about worker dissatisfaction, stress (another broken family) and the fact that Swiss citizens are armed to the teeth.
The film is well-shot and acted, however, with Güven Kiraç as the Turkish first-generation immigrant father of the comatose boy in particular turning in a performance that ranges convincingly from jolly to autocratic to bewildered, and grieving. But the film’s ultimate lack of focus is frustrating and alienating, and points to a problem that underlies this genre in general: in giving the audience the power to draw conclusions from coincidences to which many of the characters are themselves not privy, it puts the viewer in a sort of godlike position, hovering over, but never involved in, the proceedings. God may be all-seeing, but He is also, they tell us, disinterested. “180°” is the kind of film that makes that disinterest easier to understand. [C]