Pamfir review – technically superb and powerful filmmaking from Ukraine
First-time director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk delivers a richly drawn, impressively subtle film set on the Ukrainian borderlands
The first thing you’ll notice about Pamfir is its stylistic bravado. This is a colourfully rich, technically superb film. The Ukrainian borderlands in which it is set (near Romania) are shot as muddy, earthy browns, and when the snow comes in the twilight, it lingers with that strange blue-white hue of low-light iciness. Village festivals – and a fiery accident – spark flashes of reds and yellows, accentuating what might be an oppressive sea of browns. Most noticeably, nearly every scene is shot as a single take with no edits.
Stylistic tactics such as these are often used as a showmanship strategy to draw attention away from the weakness of the film itself: the utterly risible work of Alejandro González Iñárritu its clearest proponent. In avoiding cuts a film often loses dramatic tension, because so much kinetic energy is lost in the time it takes to reposition a camera and create the two separate images usually built by a standard cut. First-time director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk and his cinematographer Nikita Kuzmenko certainly have a lot of plates to spin here, but they manage to craft a film that avoids all the standard pitfalls of its showiness.
Key, I think, to this success, is the fact that the film is essentially structured around a character – an ex-con – who utters those deadly words onscreen: “one last job.” Oleksandr Yatsentyuk plays the titular character, a father returning to his family after some time away in Poland. After his son, the naive son Nazar (Stanislav Potyak) accidentally burns down the village church after volunteering, things turn from bad to worse, with local mafiosos swirling and intimidating. It all rings with the air of the inevitable, like the noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s, in which it was clear that the protagonist is doomed from frame one, accentuated by the choice to shoot almost exclusively in long takes.
What matters then, is the journey and not the destination. As each take frames and reframes its action, constantly in movement but always finding a moment to recompose and give viewers engaging images, there’s always that sense of inevitable downfall. And yet, Yatsentyuk, built like an oak and playing a character who can fight off gangs of men, pushes against this at every stage, giving Pamfir a sense of strange optimism and good cheer, even as all falls apart around him. He’s caught between knowing what Ukraine could be (and this film was shot before the full-scale invasion by Russia last year), and fighting against what it presently is, even as he engages in the criminality and corruption that holds it back.
Somewhere around the middle, Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk deploys the only scene in the film where the camera actively cuts between action and reaction. Pamfir and his wife Olena (Solomiya Kyrlova) are in a hastily rebuilt church watching their son take part in the choir. At first he refuses to sing, leading to confusion, before breaking free and stamping his authority on the song. In choosing to place hard cuts here, the director literally breaks the divisions between generations, suggesting that the future lies in throwing off the shackles of the past and moving forward. It’s a simple, elemental observation that stands in the centre of a subtle and powerful film.
Pamfir is released in UK cinemas on 5 May.Where to watch