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‘Mariupolis 2’ Review: Mantas Kvedaravičius’s Last Testament Is a Raw War Document of Civilians in Ukraine

The filmmaker was killed by Russian soldiers in April. His final documentary captures war's chaos.

'Mariupolis 2' Review: Mantas Kvedaravičius's Raw War Document
Cannes Film Festival

Mariupolis 2” is a document of the war in Ukraine that’s as raw and real as they come. It was made by the Lithuanian filmmaker and anthropologist Mantas Kvedaravičius, who was killed, on April 2, during the siege of Mariupol (he was taken captive and shot by Russian soldiers). He had been making his film there, documenting the lives of Ukranian civilians who had taken refuge in a church. The movie, conceived as a follow-up to the 2016 documentary “Mariupolis,” was completed by Kvedaravičius’s partner, Hanna Bilbrova (who takes a co-director credit), and it was shown for the first time as a Special Screening in Cannes.

For the entire film, we’re inside, or on the grounds of, or maybe across the street from the Christian Baptist Evangelical Church, a tall building, stately in a slightly ungainly way, made of tan brick lined along the sides with red brick columns. The architecture is somewhere between modernist (there are two circular windows) and medieval, the building framed in front by a pair of giant old spruce trees. In the basement, where makeshift beds have been set up, about two dozen civilians linger, praying and eating meals together, and waiting for…they don’t know what.

The first words we hear are someone saying, “Everything is in ruins.” The war had already been to Mariupol, reducing much of the surrounding landscape to rubble. During the period when the film was shot (in March), the war had retreated. Even so, it lingers in the distance — throughout the movie we hear bombs, and occasional gunfire, and there are constant plumes of smoke, all of it happening maybe three or four miles away. So the war is at bay, but it’s also right there, like a monster getting ready to pounce.

On the grounds of the church — and everywhere, really — there is debris. Chunks of it, scattered bits of it and, across the street (a former residential neighborhood that’s been flattened by bombs), endless stretching hills of it. Debris, as we see, is a major element of war, something no war film has ever completely captured except for “Full Metal Jacket” (which, during the shootout with the sniper in Hué, becomes the “Guernica” of war-debris films). In “Mariupolis 2,” the debris that’s everywhere seems to express the randomness of war, a mess that can’t be cleaned up, though two men wielding blue plastic brooms try to do just that, with quixotic valor, in the church parking lot. At that moment the movie seems to say: In war, this is what you do — you sweep up, you go on.

Kvedaravičius, as a filmmaker, doesn’t aestheticize the war. “Mariupolis 2” simply gives us one shot after another, linking them with a poetic jump-cut flow as it attempts to lend visual and emotional coherence to the experience of men, women, and children trapped in a bunker in Ukraine doing their best to ward off the chaos. Each image is vivid, like a photograph, and each is held for 10 seconds, or 30 seconds, or maybe two or four minutes. We’re getting panoramas of destruction (the shots of bomb smoke rising through the purple twilight have an element of beauty, though they’re horrifying), interspersed with shots of the everyday — a woman boiling a huge kettle of soup, with weedy sticks of dill, on a makeshift fireplace in the church backyard, or a mound of earth, strewn with wilted flowers, that we realize, with a hush, is a grave, or a man seeing that his neighbor has died and pulling the body away so that he can take the generator. The movie then spends close to five minutes showing him and another man tugging the orange generator along. Occasionally, what happens is even funny (the dog ate all the butter!).

In “Mariupolis 2,” we’re looking at vérité snapshots of war as it happens, and that’s a thing of value. You see small events here and feel them — life as it’s lived during wartime — that you won’t see on CNN. At the same time, Kvedaravičius was a documentary purist who in this film, at least, eschews any hint of the kind of nonfiction storytelling that draws people into even the most forbidding of documentaries. “Mariupolis 2” is resolute and impersonal in its objectivity. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s austere enough to make a Frederick Wiseman documentary look like an episode of “Dance Moms.” Do we get to know the people we see? Not really. That’s the film’s most radical choice. But it’s also a resonant one, because the message is that we don’t need to know them to know they could be any of us.

‘Mariupolis 2’ Review: Mantas Kvedaravičius’s Last Testament Is a Raw War Document of Civilians in Ukraine

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings), May 20, 2022. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: 112 MIN.

  • Production: An Easy Rider Films, Extimacy Films, Studio Uljana Kim, Twenty Twenty Vision Filmprouktion production. Producers: Hanna Bilbrova, Omar El Kadi, Thanassis Karathanos, Uljana Kim, Mantans Kvedaravičius, Nadia Turincev.
  • Crew: Director: Mantans Kvedaravičius. Co-director: Hanna Bilbrova. Camera: Mindaugas Galkus. Editor: Dounia Sichov.