The Front Lines

The Front Lines

On Atlantis, Dear Comrades!, and A Glitch in the Matrix.


Atlantis so thoroughly fails the Bechdel Test that its two female characters—the minimum required to pass the assessment—never even meet, let alone converse. Granted, they’re educated professionals who talk about their work and not guys. Even so, this film—set in Eastern Ukraine in 2025, “one year after the war”—focuses almost single-mindedly on men, especially those who are no longer in combat but remain in uniform, one way or another. Some keep ready for firefights by donning their old outfits on weekends, driving to a snowy ravine, and shouting their way through target practice—just in case, or because they don’t know what else to do with themselves. Others have moldering tatters of fatigues clinging to their bones when they’re dug out of mass graves.

This is male cinema, in capital letters—but as written, directed, photographed, and edited by Valentyn Vasyanovych, it’s also real cinema, made by an artist who has thought about why and how he’s showing whatever you see. You’re well into the picture, for example, before Vasyanovych stops confining himself to long, static shots, one per scene, and allows more frequent camera movement to begin—or, rather, permits the camera to ride in a truck with his protagonist, the war veteran Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk), who has taken a part-time job driving down muddy, foggy, mine-infested roads in a grayish nowhere. It’s not just that these trips call for traveling shots; it’s that Sergiy, in the earlier part of the film, was going nowhere except into himself, furiously, obsessively, but now he is finally looking outward. Or consider the dizzying jumps in scale that Vasyanovych builds into some of his widescreen compositions: setting an apparently minuscule Sergiy in the foreground of the shot, on an apartment building roof that cuts across the frame, while the immense, shadowy jumble of a steel mill looms in the background. How far away is that factory, where Sergiy has been employed? You can’t tell. All you know is that it dwarfs him.

And when one of the women at last fulfills the destiny assigned to her from the start, melting into Sergiy as his redemptive squeeze? Even then Vasyanovych keeps his wits about him. The two are in the cab of Sergiy’s truck, which has broken down on one of those boggy roads and is being pelted by a downpour. As Katya (Liudmyla Bileka) moves closer to Sergiy, the camera, recording from outside the truck, also begins to move, dollying slowly forward until the torrent on the windshield becomes an impenetrable veil, shielding the kiss from view.

What brought these lovers together? Death. Having lost his job at the steel mill—which suffered one of the two possible fates of factories in this area, demolition or decommission—Sergiy is now driving a small tank truck on alternate weekends, delivering potable water to stations in the former combat zone. He encounters Katya when she flags him down—her van has stalled—and agrees to tow her to the morgue, where she hands over one of the unidentified corpses her volunteer organization disinters. It’s not exactly a meet-cute. Katya has to complete some documentation, so Sergiy (like the film’s viewer) sticks around for the autopsy. He’s helpful, too. Given his experience, he can tell the medical examiners that the method of killing suggests the victim was a captured sniper.

That might be one of the cheerier scenes in Atlantis. The action arguably becomes more grim after Sergiy joins the volunteer organization and accompanies Katya to haul seven or eight corpses out of a trench and bag them—Russian soldiers, Ukrainian soldiers, soldiers wearing the rotting insignia of the Donbass militia. Katya takes pity on Sergiy as a first-timer, offering him some scent to dull the stench. And after that, there’s yet another mass grave to empty. The autopsies, Katya explains, are the only means by which these people can still tell their stories. Some stories. The best the organization can do, it seems, is erect crosses labeled “Temporarily Non-Identified Defender of Ukraine.”

What perversity—apart from the pleasure of recognizing the work of a real filmmaker—makes me feel enthusiasm for this stuff?

At the risk of detracting from the specificity of Atlantis, a film so Ukrainian that it is the nation’s official submission to the Academy Awards competition, I’ll mention two ways in which the movie also speaks to my experience, and maybe yours. First, it’s a picture about heavy industry. Remember that? I do, from my youth in the shadow of US Steel, International Harvester, Wisconsin Steel, and more. There’s an exhilaration of might about steel mills, a power that’s geological in physical scale and elemental in the massive release of flame, steam, fumes, and molten metal. How often do you see that in the movies anymore? How often can you still see it in America? It’s vanishing in Atlantis, too—foreign owners are abandoning the mill, with the usual blather about there being no other choice, new times are upon us—but for Sergiy and the moviegoer, the hulking majesty remains in sight.

Second, Atlantis is about what’s left of a landscape after war: not just the pockets of corpses, but the poison. The reason Sergiy has to deliver potable water is because everyone in his part of the world is living not in the 2025 of speculative fiction but in what amounts to the dystopian present. People have fought for this terrain and, in fighting, made it unlivable. Atlantis offers you the deep if devastating satisfaction of seeing this truth squarely faced. By showing that Sergiy and Katya persist even so, Atlantis might also inspire your own stubborn loyalty to earth that’s been scorched, if not by soldiers then by our current warriors of social strife.

If that seems too sentimental, you might think about the alternative chosen by one of Sergiy’s combat veteran buddies, who dissolves himself in the smelting bucket. No unsightly remains are left to bury. There’s just an extra quart for the slag heap. Some Atlantis.

Eighty-three years old at the time of this writing and not slowing down, Andrei Konchalovsky is now following the 2020 US release of Dear Comrades! with the US theatrical premiere, at New York’s Film Forum, of his 2019 historical drama, Sin. Except for being mordant and furiously energetic, the two films could hardly be more different.

The widely praised Dear Comrades! (Russia’s submission to the Academy Awards) is a black-and-white reimagination of a real event—the 1962 massacre of striking workers in the Soviet town of Novocherkassk—as seen through the turmoil of a fictional woman divided in loyalty between the party and her missing daughter. Sin, shot in glowing color at locations throughout Italy, is an exuberant fictionalization of a few years in the life of a historic figure, Michelangelo, covering the period from 1512, when he finished painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, to about 1520, when he reached a dead end in his commission for the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence.

It’s a fascinating subject for Konchalovsky to take up late in life, considering that the high point of his early career was the screenplay he cowrote with Andrei Tarkovsky for Andrei Rublev. With Michelangelo as his protagonist, Konchalovsky has much more source material to draw from—or, looking at it the other way, to tie him down—than he did with Rublev, a central character who is all but absent from literary documentation and also missing from Tarkovsky’s screen half the time. In both cases, though, at the two ends of his career, Konchalovsky has projected himself onto an artist struggling with religious faith, the limitations of material conditions, and above all the demands of authority—or, in the case of Sin, two authorities. I wouldn’t want to insist on the analogy, but Sin is largely concerned with Michelangelo’s artistic and financial conflicts as he’s pulled back and forth between Florence and Rome and the successive political regimes of the Della Roveres and the Medicis—not unlike Konchalovsky, whose life has straddled the Soviet and post-Soviet eras and whose career has shuttled between Russia and the West.

If that sounds like heavy going, you should know that Sin participates joyously in the Monty Python tradition of “Bring out your dead!” movies. As Michelangelo makes his way through gorgeously recreated Renaissance streets and lanes, night soil keeps splashing from the windows overhead, chickens intrude on every situation, and random fits of overacting erupt on all sides. (When Michelangelo protests that the church has no right to censor his frescoes, a priest pops out of a crowd to scream, with a fresh grimace for each syllable, “How dare you speak that way to the Holy Inquisition?!”) The enjoyment of copulation is untrammeled by worries about privacy—here alone the film is circumspect, confining Michelangelo to the role of an observer—and conferences of his Buonarroti clan infallibly degenerate into fisticuffs.

Alberto Testone, who previously portrayed Pier Paolo Pasolini and may someday be cast in a biopic of Willem Dafoe, brings his deeply carved but sly and clear-eyed features to the role of Michelangelo, with disorderly dark hair and a two-pronged beard that make him faithfully resemble contemporaneous portraits. Testone’s performance, too, conforms to accounts written at the time: rude, delusional, angry, sordid, scheming, and so impetuous that he can break into an old-coot shuffle like Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This is how you make a film about artistic heroism without a hero.

The adjective that Pope Julius II applies to this man is divino—but the word repeated most often in Sin is probably monstro. It describes the enormous block of Carrara marble that Michelangelo acquires, at an expense that includes a man’s life, and it describes the artist himself, whose talent is too immense for his self-starved body, his social station, or his own good. There are no excuses for the monster you meet in Sin, but neither is there a dull moment in his story.

Fresh out of the Sundance Film Festival comes Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix, which I might call a documentary if it assumed anything was out there to record.

The theme is the speculation—impossible to disprove and therefore both logically meaningless and nagging—that the world is a simulation. Some of Ascher’s commentators note the long history of theories that reality lies beyond our senses; they cite Hindu mythology, Plato’s allegory of the cave, and Descartes’s efforts to nail down the certainty of existence. But Ascher’s concern is with a distinct, fast-growing, and much more recent notion, encouraged by video games and vastly popularized by The Matrix, which assumes that the illusion in which we dwell is like an all-encompassing computer model.

Who or what has produced this illusion, or imposed it on us? Who, for that matter, is “us,” if the people you see (or the vast majority of them) are mere blips in your consciousness—“nonplaying characters,” in the language of computer games? Just how lonely are you, or do you want to believe yourself to be? Ascher provides a context for such questions, though no answers, by incorporating recorded excerpts of a speech that Philip K. Dick delivered in 1977 at a conference in Metz, in which he spoke about experiences that confirmed (in his mind) that his fictional themes of alternate realities and trompe l’œil worlds revealed a great truth. A reasonable person cannot simply dismiss Dick’s reading of his own stories and novels. They have become too popular and influential to ignore—witness the multiple, illustrative film clips that Ascher uses from Total Recall, Minority Report, Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly. Witness the next level up from Dick in the simulation game—The Matrix—which provides the ultimately horrifying test case for Ascher.

Horrifying, but also funny—because Ascher playfully constructs A Glitch in the Matrix as a maze of borrowed footage (such as the Dick materials), video-game downloads, and new computer-generated imagery, so there’s little if any “outside” to the movie. The funniest, most teasing instances are his interviews with youngish men who believe in the simulation hypothesis, and who come before you in forms that might be altered, or perhaps are real. Who knows? One has the head of a metallic red lion and dresses in ancient armor. Another looks like the heavy-metal version of an Egyptian god and wears a tuxedo jacket with a pink bow tie. A third is a bulky but genial-looking extraterrestrial with reptilian skin When he absent-mindedly scratches his head in conversation, his fingers squeak against the transparent dome of his space helmet. You don’t feel that Ascher is mocking these people, perhaps because they speak with such earnestness and candor (and in some cases, interestingly, a background in evangelical Christianity).

They also admit, in one way or another, that for all their conviction, they’re stumped—though not as stumped as Joshua Cooke, the frequently bullied, Matrix-obsessed Virginia teenager who murdered his parents in 2003 and was shocked that the mess of his mother’s head was unlike anything he’d seen in the movie.

As someone who deeply hates The Matrix but revels in irreverent brainteasers, I welcome Ascher’s film, as entertainment and exegesis. Unfortunately, it doesn’t address one of the more pressing problems of consensual reality—the regime of “alternative facts” that is still with us. You can decide for yourself how the Trumpian big lie figures in simulation theory: glitch, or feature?

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