Following Alexander Mindadze’s very different “Innocent Saturday,” “Land of Oblivion” reps the second major feature of 2011 to carve drama out of the Chernobyl disaster, to powerful effect. Painted on a broader canvas than Mindadze’s pic, and covering the 1986 accident itself as well as radiation effects across Eastern Europe 10 years later, this feature debut for French documentarian Michale Boganim emphasizes the long-term psychological toll on the victims. Paradoxically, the pic will struggle to find a foothold in territories most affected by Chernobyl, where auds prefer to remain oblivious, but fest play and theatrical outings further west look possible.
Anchored by much onscreen information that reveals facts and statistics and suggests extensive research, the screenplay by Boganim, Anne Weil and Antoine Lacomblez unfolds events through the prism of several different characters whose paths criss-cross one another over the years.
Pretty Anya (Olga Kurylenko, “Quantum of Solace”) and local fireman Pyotr (Nikita Emshanov) are married on April 26, 1986, just hours after the reactor at Chernobyl blows up, although no one apart from a few high-ranking employees at the power plant is told what’s really going on. Pyotr is called away to help put out the fire, and Anya never sees him again.
Engineer Alexei (Andrzej Chyra) is one of the few who knows what’s really happened at the plant, and immediately orders his wife, Lena (Natalya Barteva), and young son, Valery (Vladyslav Akulyonok), to get out of town, probably saving their lives. He stays behind to help others, and in years to come will be considered a hero.
On a farm on the outskirts of Pripyat, the town nearest the power plant, farmer Nikolai (Vyacheslav Slanko) refuses to abandon his home, even when residents start to be forcibly evacuated.
The pic’s first half, done on a big budget with co-production coin to re-create Pripyat in its heyday, will seem fairly low-key to auds used to Hollywood disaster movies. There are times when Boganim pushes the pedals on the organ of dramatic irony with a slightly leaden foot, and lingers portentously on ominous details like a wedding cake soaked in black rain. But other moments are genuinely touching, such as the sight of Alexei propping up an umbrella over a sleeping stranger at a bus stop to protect her, or the harrowing cutaways to the animals and birds dying off in droves, unnoticed by the populace at first.
Pic comes into its own more powerfully in the 1996-set second half, partly filmed in the actual locations around Chernobyl. Anya has become a tour guide showing visitors around the area, while a now 16-year-old Valery (Illya Iosivof) comes back with Lena to honor his father’s memory and goes AWOL in the zone, in an increasingly spooky sequence that self-consciously recalls the otherworldly sci-fi “zona” of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 “Stalker”.
The chance to act in her native Ukrainian with a meaty role has clearly spurred star Kurylenko to raise her game here, and she’s consistently affecting as the emotionally numbed Anya, who, like the characters in “Innocent Saturday,” longs to leave but can never quite drag herself away from her benighted hometown.
Production design impresses deeply with its re-creation of the pre-disaster area, while Svetlana Poberezhnaya’s costumes for the distaff cast members get both the shabby Soviet chic look of the Glasnost period and the tackier, more lurid duds of post-independence just right. Lensing by d.p. Yorgos Arvanitis (a longtime collaborator of Theo Angelopoulos), who shot all the sequences set in summer, and Antoine Heberle (“Paradise Now”), who filmed all the winter segments, adds a layer of class to an altogether tony tech package.