A female perspective on a little-known chapter in WWII history.

Frosh helmer Vanja d’Alcantara’s “Beyond the Steppes” offers a female perspective on a little-known chapter in WWII history, as well as lots more evidence of the magnetic screen presence of thesp Agnieszka Grochowska. But despite these riches, this story of a Polish officer’s wife in a Russian labor camp struggles to develop into a compelling account of the doubtless harrowing true story of a woman’s fight for survival and that of her son (inspired by the life of the helmer’s grandmother). Beyond some local action, the likeliest takers are femme fests, film weeks and smallscreen buyers.

After some foreplay and awkwardly scripted dialogue are interrupted by their crying newborn, duty calls, and Polish army officer Roman (Borys Szyc) has to leave wife Nina (Grochowska, of “The Welts” and “Upperdog”). Not much later, she is taken from her bed by the Soviets and sent to a Sovkhoz, a state labor camp, in what is now Kazakhstan with her infant son — a destiny shared by some one million Poles, mainly mothers and children, after the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland in 1940.

At the remote camp in the Siberian steppes, Nina is forced to perform manual labor while trying to care for her frequently ill son. As in many pics that recount the experiences inside wartime labor camps, Nina has hardly anything to eat, is subjugated to cruel treatment by guards, and finds solace in the companionship of some of the other female prisoners.

Grochowska, as usual, is a captivating and luminous presence, making it easier for auds to stick with her despite the rather generic scenario for the first couple of reels.

When Nina’s baby boy falls ill and needs medication not available in the camp, the defiant mother is finally given a challenge to sink her teeth into, though, oddly, d’Alcantara doesn’t stage this moment as the true test of Nina’s character, and seems unsure how to reveal her protag’s true strength when faced with such an apparently insurmountable problem.

Nina’s individual tale never snowballs into an emotional story with an epic sweep (the pic’s lack of widescreen lensing doesn’t help), and the overall impact is low-key. Main problem is d’Alcantara’s script, which besides some awkward dialogue contains more than a few beginner’s mistakes in introducing characters and conflict, arriving at key scenes either tangentially, which leaves them only loosely connected to the main story, or so full-on that the narrative gets ahead of itself. The chronological storytelling makes it easy enough to follow the film’s timeline, but hard to identify the defining moments in Nina’s life. And in an attempt to always stay grounded in reality, the film becomes rather sedate, which works against such a harrowing true story.

Makeup and costume design neatly help tell the story without drawing attention. The obviously modest budget is no help to the other tech credits. D.p. Dirk Impens’ frequent closeups of the characters’ faces and the wider vistas of the titular steppes are fine, though their juxtaposition often feels arbitrary.

Beyond the Steppes

Belgium

Production

A Lumiere release of a Need Prods., Lunanime production, in association with Akson Studio, with the participation of Novak Prod., Inter Cinema. (International sales: Doc & Film Intl., Paris.) Produced by Dennis Delcampe, Annemie Degryse. Directed, written by Vanja d'Alcantara.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Ruben Impens; editor, Virginie Messiaen; production designer, Marek Warszewski; costume designer, Magda Rutkiewicz; sound, Senjan Jansen; associate producers, Michal Kwiencinski, Katarzyna Fukacz Cebula; assistant director, Catherine Montondo. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing), Aug. 7, 2010. Running time: 83 MIN.

With

Agnieszka Grochowska, Aleksandra Justa, Borys Szyc, Ahan Zolanbiek, Tatiana Tarskaja. (Polish, Russian, Kazakh dialogue)

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