Valentyn Vasyanovych earned notoriety as the cinematographer behind 2014’s “The Tribe,” but he finds a confident voice all his own as a director with “Atlantis,” his third feature as such but his most striking to date. Conjuring a bombed-out, postwar Ukraine in 2025, the film’s crumbling world eerily mirrors our own, and is barely distant enough to qualify as speculative fiction. Unfolding across austerely shot (by Vasyanovych himself) tableaux with ruinous production design that brings to mind the industrially fed-on environments of the “Fallout” video games or even Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” “Atlantis” is a political howl from the soul about a decaying Europe. But its cold, violent exterior turns out to be a bleak disguise for what is an unexpectedly sweet love story at its molten core.
The biggest stretch of the imagination here is that the conflict between Russian and Ukraine has superficially ended, but its trickling, traumatic effects still linger. Especially for former soldier Sergey (Andriy Rymaruk), who nows toils in a foundry, addled by PTSD. In the open shot of the film, he’s seen with Ivan (a powerfully stoic Vasyl Antoniak), his only friend and also a broken veteran, installing a firing range aside a snow-dappled bluff. Just reliving happy memories. But Ivan, as he reveals, is intent on disappearing, and does so in a stunning act of quite literally self-immolating suicide. When it’s announced that emerging technologies have forced the plant to shutter, Sergey, who otherwise spends his days and nights in a drab housing project that closely resembles the ghost town of Pripyat, to volunteer for Black Tulip, the organization responsible for exhuming the bodies of former soldiers.
It’s through digging up war corpses that Sergey meets Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), once an architect but now a humanitarian activist. As they grow inexorably closer, she asks him to leave the “zone” — the no man’s land where they currently work and live — and go with her to Western Europe. What’s keeping him from running toward his future?
For such a bleak, statically composed film boasting at least several long takes of fetid corpses splayed across the dirt, “Atlantis” is shockingly hopeful. Late into the film, Sergey and Katya’s truck breaks down in a rainstorm, making way for one of the most jaw-dropping shots of the year as the pair passionately embraces as seen behind the rain-spattered windshield. What comes next is a sex scene that, despite its clinical distance and dismal lighting, is strangely hot and heavy.
Another wry moment finds Sergey, exhausted and wrung-out after yet another day of picking apart bodies, filling the bucket of a tractor with hose water and lighting a fire underneath it to take a hot soak.
Valentyn Vasyanovych writes, edits, produces, shoots, and directs his own film, which might imply something of a control freak. But not every shot is formed with the precision of tweezers, as Vasyanovych allows for small idiosyncrasies to seep through, like other members of the Black Tulip milling around in the background as Sergey projectile-vomits upon surfacing a decomposing dead soldier. You can’t say Vasyanovych doesn’t have a sense of humor about what the end of the world might look like.
This is not a beautiful world, but it is one that’s slowly healing, and in which two people are allowed to fall in love again even as the gap between Soviet Russia and Ukraine couldn’t possibly be any wider. Yet oddly — and this especially hits hard when, in fact, it’s a movie you can’t see in theaters right now but is absolutely deserving of the biggest canvas possible — it’s a world you want to live in.
“Atlantis” opens virtually on Metrograph.com on Friday, January 22.