“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” said Theresa May near the beginning of her ill-fated premiership of the United Kingdom. An ugly, insular attempt to shame migrants and multinationals across the European Union, the term “citizen of nowhere” has since been claimed with defiant pride by many of its targets — yet its very coinage remains chilling, according subhuman status to those who must cross borders to make a living, or just to hold onto their lives. By turns despairing, exhilarating and acridly funny, Latvian director Juris Kursietis’ tremendous “Oleg” peers closely at the real, ragged soul within one such nowhere man: a young, debt-ridden Latvian butcher scraping by in Ghent, whose desperation to stay put lands him at the mercy of the Polish immigrant mafia, which is to say not much mercy at all.
As an unblinking study of contemporary Europe’s pitiless migrant labor market — in which it takes but a single desperate wrong turn to transition from precarious gig employment to outright modern-day slavery — “Oleg” would be politically essential even if it weren’t so cinematically exciting. At Cannes, where it premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, the film received a fraction of the attention granted Ken Loach’s thematically compatible “Sorry We Missed You,” but it’s a rather more propulsive feat of socialist realism — and on any terms, a sucker-punch of a sophomore outing for Kursietis, whose 2014 debut “Modris” likewise meshed lively, close-up character study with fierce institutional critique.
The tonal palette here is richer still, working manic, black-hearted farce and austere religious contemplation into the film’s Dardennes-indebted naturalism. It is set in Belgium, after all, though Kursietis’ vision of the country’s industrial squalor is rather more baroquely bleak than the fraternal duo’s. Indeed, “Oleg” successfully blurs its locale into a kind of pan-EU purgatory that reflects its protagonist’s own dizzy sense of statelessness: The quick, often ribald script darts aptly and authentically between Russian, Polish, Latvian, French and Flemish, with slightly hobbled English as its lingua franca. A pointed early gag sees a Latvian ribbed for naming his cat Brexit “just because”: Cultural and geographical reference points pinball here as wildly and recklessly as d.p. Bogumil Godfrejow artfully seasick handheld camera.
We’re introduced to the title character in a dreamlike opening sequence set far from the film’s predominant urban milieu. In a snowy forest clearing, Oleg falls into a frozen lake, while a voiceover muses on the nature of the sacrificial lamb: a conflation of spiritual symbolism that will make more sense as the film progresses, at the risk of feeling a touch over-determined. Reality then hits with a literal judder, as Oleg — superbly played by Valentin Novopolskij with a mixture of starved intensity and droll irony — lands in Brussels on a turbulent economy flight. It’s an inauspicious start to a new life that continues to seem on the verge of crashing. Saddled with crippling debt that is neither explained nor made to seem at all remarkable relative to other workers’ plights, he has taken a grisly job at an industrial abattoir in Ghent, sending money back to his grandmother in Riga while sharing cramped accommodation with fellow Eastern European recruits.
It sounds bad; it gets worse. Adrift and desperate after being unjustly fired for an co-worker’s error, he falls in with Polish chancer Andrzej (Dawid Ogrodnik), an outwardly affable wheeler-dealer type with a house full of misfit migrants — offered room, board and visa solutions in exchange for legally dubious labor. What initially seems a stroke of luck and relative luxury (complete with FIFA gaming access on a big-screen TV) doesn’t take long to sour, as it turns out that Andrzej is not just a petty criminal — obvious enough — but an outright psychopath, withholding Oleg’s wages and threatening to kill him if he escapes: a 21st-century slave trader that Kursietis and Ogrodnik riskily but effectively play for horrifying laughs.
All but unrecognizable from his turn as the amorous jazzman in “Ida,” Ogrodnik is entirely electrifying as a bipolar manipulator with a morbidly wonky sense of humor. Both greasily pathetic and genuinely frightening, he’s also just paternalistic and charismatic enough that we understand how vulnerable young men fall under his spell. It’s a high-wire performance that complements Novopolskij’s wry, pained underplaying: Their thespian duet perfectly enacts the distorted power dynamics that keep such abhorrent labor systems in place, even as “Oleg” builds to a climax of admittedly compromised hope.
It’s a necessarily exhausting, stomach-knotting ride, kept riveting amid relentlessly sordid circumstances by a keen sense of absurdity in the episodic storytelling — with room for wicked, winking digressions, like Oleg’s duplicitous one-night stand with an older Latvian socialite (Guna Zarina) — and the sheer vertiginous bravura of Kursietis’ directorial technique. Shot in a confined Academy ratio, with limber cutting that matches the camera’s nervous energy and a whirling range of music cues that finally ascends to a choral shriek, “Oleg” trades in pace without undue flash. Its barrelling, unsteady construction only matches the panicked chaos of its subject’s own day-to-day existence: Like many a disregarded citizen of nowhere, Oleg doesn’t have time to breathe and compose himself before finding his next temporary life.