Oleg

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Oleg
"Ogrodnik - so impressive in 2017's Silent Night - is magnetic." | Photo: Courtesy of La Quinzaine

The subject of modern slavery is brought close to home in the latest film from Latvian director Juris Kursietis, which played in Cannes Directors' Fortnight, which charts shows how the road to employment exploitation can be paved by baby steps so small you might not know it's happening until it's too late.

Take Oleg (Valentin Novopolskij), for instance. He's a man with a plan that looks fine on paper, he's come from Latvia to Brussels to work as a butcher, equipped with the necessary work permit and is sharing accommodation with other economic migrants. A workplace accident later, however, and he finds himself out of a job and with very little cash in his pocket. When a Polish friend of a friend, Andrzej (Dawid Ogrodnik) says he can help him out with work and a place to stay, it seems like a blessing, and though it's not long before he realises just how volatile and dangerous Andrzej is, that doesn't happen until the Polish man has already got hold of the Latvian's passport.

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Kursietis approaches the material largely in the vein of the likes of Ken Loach or the Dardennes brothers, but although the circumstances are often grim, he also finds a level of black comedy in the situation. Oleg is hapless but also resourceful - a side trip to Ghent in which he inveigles his way into a Latvian party and a woman's bed by posing as an actor is delightful, while also allowing Kursietis to point out the every day prejudices migrants face. The director - writing with Liga Celma-Kursiete and Kaspars Odins - also departs from the everyday grind of Oleg's kitchen sink life for sequences depicting him sinking, fully clothed in a frozen lake, the tight aspect ration also lending the film a claustrophobic edge.

It's through moments like these that Kursietis stresses the importance of Oleg's mindset - for much of the film he unhelpfully views himself in terms of a sacrificial lamb - but the director also has plenty of opprobrium for a society filled with hidden bias, from Oleg's one-night stand who looks down on his real trade to the Belgian police who turn a blind eye to exploitation even when it's under their noses.

Ogrodnik - so impressive in 2017's Silent Night - is magnetic again here as minor criminal Andrzej, flipping between aggression and comradeship with the ease of the click of a TV remote. It's easy to see why Oleg likes him to start with, even as the Pole settles into the classic abuser mode of unpredictability, one minute full of death threats, the next offering to raise a glass. Kursietis also takes time to make the world around Oleg feel real, there is talk of Brexit and football and Andrzej's girlfriend Zita (Guna Zarina) is also given decent depth. We barely feel the tension at first, but by the film's last third, we're like Oleg, feeling the chill of ice in our veins and holding our breath.

Reviewed on: 30 May 2019
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A migrant to Belgium loses his job and finds himself in trouble thanks to his non-citizen status.

Director: Juris Kursietis

Writer: Liga Celma-Kursiete, Juris Kursietis, Kaspars Odins

Starring: Valentin Novopolskij, Dawid Ogrodnik, Anna Próchniak, Guna Zarina, Adam Szyszkowski, Toussaint Colombani, Ronald Beurms, Marcos Adamantiadis, Valentin Novopolskij, Dawid Ogrodnik, Anna Próchniak, Guna Zarina, Adam Szyszkowski, Toussaint Colombani, Ronald Beurms

Year: 2019

Runtime: 108 minutes

Country: Latvia, Lithuania, Belgium


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