The ironically titled “My Joy,” from renowned Belarus-born documaker Sergei Loznitsa (now a German citizen), is a challenging feature debut that plays like an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Set in contempo provincial Russia, with two flashbacks to WWII years, it shows a violence-filled country corrupted into inhumanity. Although discomfiting to audiences desiring a steady narrative thread (and less accessible to those unfamiliar with Eastern European history and culture), it sustains interest throughout as a devastating critique of Russian society. Pic reps strong, provocative fest material with limited pickup potential.
A short pre-title sequence of three men covering a body with freshly poured cement viscerally establishes the brutishness of the pic’s world. What follows is an episodic first hour that centers on young trucker Georgy (Viktor Nemets), whose latest delivery run becomes an increasingly foreboding journey into the heart of human darkness.
After being harassed at a checkpoint by two corrupt traffic cops, Georgy gives a lift to an old man (Vladimir Golovin), who mysteriously appears in the cab of his truck. In return, the elderly gent recounts a shocking incident that took place when he was a young lieutenant (played by Alexey Vertkov) returning from the frontlines.
The kindly Georgy’s next passenger is an underage prostitute (Olga Shuvalova), who’s far more knowing than he regarding the savageness of the area, which she refers to as “cursed.” Her declaration that “there are no friends here” proves chillingly true when, hopelessly lost, he encounters a trio of tramps.
At a climatic moment near the one-hour mark, “My Joy” departs from Georgy’s journey — a rupture that may alienate some viewers completely. The subsequent episodes (including another flashback to WWII) up the ante for violence, abuse of trust, and brutal behavior by representatives of the state while presenting a bewildering array of new characters. The barbaric repression of tolerance and differing points of view repped by the second WWII scene inspired much discussion after the Cannes press screening.
In its final moments, the pic comes full circle in a way that, if not exactly satisfying, at least helps to explain why helmer and producers were unable to find any Russian production coin.
Loznitsa’s greatest achievement is to create and sustain a visual style of heightened realism that lends total credibility to scenes that would, in other hands, play as horror or dream. He’s aided in this by the steady widescreen lensing of Moldova-born Oleg Mutu, key cameraman for the current Romanian wave (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”), who keeps the action looking scrupulously naturalistic as the steady stream of horrors mounts.
Casting mixes international thesps and Ukrainian non-pros with non-showy playing all around. Precise tech package is solidly pro.