Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"A film full of despair and tortured masculinity."

One of the most difficult things about living with the after-effects of trauma is dealing with the isolation it creates. Calling it PTSD suggests a series of well defined symptoms, a condition affecting a person from the outside; it elides the way that a whole personality can be altered. Once one has gone through that, it’s hard to relate to people who haven’t, and hard for them to understand in turn. The longer one spends at a distance from the world, the more permanent the sense of difference becomes.

It’s no wonder that the suicide rate among former soldiers is so high.

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Atlantis begins with a visually startling scene. Apparently shot in infrared, it shows a solitary figure digging at the earth, gradually creating a hollow that can only be a grave. Then three other men appear, two of them dragging the third. The force him into the grave. Shots are fired. The figure becomes still. The effect of the infrared is to give the scene a strange, hypnotic beaurty, to make it seem separate from life. it’s impersonal; it triggers no emotion. one watches these glowing figures like a man who is already cold inside.

When we first meet Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) he is arriving at a deserted quarry with an old war buddy. together they set out a row of human-shaped targets. This is Eastern Ukraine and it is, we are informed, one year since the war ended. Sergiy and his companion challenge each other to shoot at the targets in different orders, trying to keep their skills sharp. Strong emotions are released in the process. Each man has a lot invested in his image of himself. They end up shooting at one another’s bulletproof vests.

Atlantis is a film full of despair and tortured masculinity. A factory worker told that he no longer welds like a man loses any sense of purpose. We observe industrial processes, always at a distance; watch a factory boss making the speech that will end dozens of men’s careers. There’s a theatricality about it all, director Valentyn Vasyanovych framing everything as if it were on stage, with lots of symmetry. The results are often beautiful, even when one might not expect that in light of the things they depict. there’s a haunting quality about these places, a sense that the whole region has been rejected by a world that has moved on.

Somewhere amid this chaos, Sergiy stumbles upon a group of people who are trying, for its own sake, to do good. Mostly volunteers, they are disinterring war corpses from hastily-dug graves – or sometimes just finding them by the side of the road – and doing what they can to identify them or at least record what can be discerned about them, in the hope of bringing closure and peace to their families. The autopsy we watch for some ten minutes, conducted on a man whose skin has already begun to look like old boot leather, is the fist calm, peaceful thing the film was offered. Sergiy is moved by what he sees. He might have found a purpose. But tortured memories still make him smash up his own flat in a rage.

Can there be a lasting peace for him? A deepening connection with one of the volunteers, Katya (Liudmyla Bileka) seems to offer hope. She too has dealt with trauma, albeit in a different way. With her, Sergiy might find an escape route from his isolation – if he has the strength to let her in.

Achingly bleak, Atlantis will be a difficult watch for most people, but it gets the experience of being altered by trauma in a way that will bring relief to some. Despite the violence that continues to bubble beneath the surface, the heat present even when we can’t see it, it’s a quiet film, sombre and reflective. It speaks for neglected people and neglected places and gives the rest of the world a glimpse of why they matter.

Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2020
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In a near-future war-torn Ukraine a man with PTSD takes a volunteer job exhuming the dead.
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Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych

Writer: Valentyn Vasyanovych

Starring: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka, Vasyl Antoniak

Year: 2019

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: Ukraine

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