In a series of beautiful and devastated frames within frames, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s “Reflection” sets up a chain of shiveringly precise parallels — or rather, moral mirror-images — between the life and psyche of a civilian and the actions and reactions of that same man in war. A surgeon’s table is swapped for a cement torture plinth. Paintball pellets spackling a clear wall become bullets shattering a windshield. Hands that save lives become hands that dispense mercy kills. And then, perhaps even harder on the soul, there’s the question of how to go back to the life before, once you come home from a war no one really comes home from.
As in “Atlantis,” Vasyanovych’s near-future-set 2019 Venice Horizons winner, it is the tension between the startling and sometimes brutally visceral story each single scene contains and the coolly considered, contemplative manner of its containment — lit in perfectly centered shafts of painterly, Caravaggian light — that makes “Reflection” such a compelling statement on the horrors of armed conflict, specifically here the early days of the still-ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War. Mostly unfolding in still, locked-off shots (Vasyanovych, cinematographer on Miroslav Slaboshpitskiy’s “The Tribe” is also behind the camera here, as well as taking on editing, writing and producing duties), “Reflection” is oblique, challenging and, if you’re up for it, one of the most intellectually provocative and rewarding films in this year’s Venice Competition.
It is November 2014, and Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi), a surgeon in a local hospital, is attending the birthday celebrations for his daughter Polina (Nika Myslytska). Also gathered at the facility are Serhiy’s ex and Polina’s mother (Nadia Levchenko) and her partner Andriy (Andriy Rymaruk), with whom Serhiy is on cordial, if slightly strained terms. Andriy is a soldier fighting the Ukrainian cause, and as he sloshes whisky into Serhiy’s coffee cup, there is a subtle sense of Serhiy’s feelings of slight inadequacy next to Andriy’s rough, war-wearied manliness. Behind them, neon splotches from Polina’s mock-combat session turn the observation window into a Jackson Pollock, and the girl clutches her stomach and pantomimes death for the benefit of her mom and two dads.
Serhiy’s abiding, vaguely bourgeois guilt at not being at the front along with Andriy is outlined in the next few tableaux: in surgery as he loses a patient to mine shrapnel; at a drive-in movie with his daughter; at home, meticulously cleaning his record collection. And so suddenly, we are in the back of an army jeep with him, as having enlisted, he and another soldier get lost on the fringes of the combat zone and stumble across an enemy checkpoint. Serhiy is captured.
Given that there are only a few scenes of graphic violence and far more of Serhiy’s home life before and after, this captivity section makes an almost unbearably visceral impression. The images grip in their horrifyingly beautiful compositions — evocative at times of “The Entombment of Christ” — and their echoing visual similarities. In the end, it is not the broken bodies or the awful labor-intensive work of mass death — the machinery and the hydraulics of it — that best encapsulates the film’s deeper themes. Instead, it is a moment when a bird flies straight into an apartment window and dies.
Polina is upset by the pigeon’s death — likely a factor of displaced grief for Andriy, whose fate she does not know, though we do. So Serhiy, whose muscles must still retain the recent memory of his prisoner work shoveling inconvenient bodies into an incinerator, holds a strange funeral for it, burning it on a pyre in a rubble-strewn abandoned building site, whose half-built foundations and pillars look like tombstones. But even that cannot dispel the vaguely allegorical residue the bird has left behind in a ghostly smear on the glass, that looks at times like an imprint of an angel or the image on a shroud.
This is an extraordinarily somber film, but it is not without its bitumen-black ironies (a van repurposed as a crematorium is emblazoned with the words “Humanitarian Aid from the Russian Federation”) and a mordant sense of the absurd verging on surreality, as when a character is rescued from a feral dog attack in the woods by a polo player on horseback. And although the film is strikingly formal, Vasyanovyvch is not dogmatic about his approach: Sometimes the camera does move, traveling down stairwells or through dusky forests with Serhiy, and sometimes, in the latter half, it creeps in imperceptibly closer to the people in frame, allowing them to be a little less dwarfed by the gloomy purgatory of their surroundings.
Vasyanovych even leaves us on a snatched and strange note of hard-earned hope: that the resilience of familial love might prevail despite all that’s gone before. But then, maybe, like the bright, free empty sky toward which that bird thought it was flying, that’s just an illusion, simply the temporary reflection of a man, and a nation, still trapped in the middle of grief and guilt and all the other terrible symmetries of war.