The war in Ukraine made an undeniable impact on the world and attracted more attention to Ukrainian war cinema. Although about the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War, writer-director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Reflection is one of the best recent war dramas that try solely to look at war from the perspective of its victims.
The film opens up with Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi) getting informed about the casualties of the war in Eastern Ukraine by his friend. As a surgeon and encouraged by the words of his daughter, Serhiy enlists in the army to help the wounded soldiers. Unfortunately, things take a wrong turn, and he is captured by the enemy before setting foot on the battlefield. As a prisoner of war and a surgeon, Serhiy can make sure his comrades survive under enemy torture.
Vasyanovych works on various levels to send his message. First, he focuses on character interactions rather than motives. Serhiy saves other prisoners from death after they have been tortured, but the enemy will not stop torturing them to get more information. While Serhiy’s intentions are pure, his actions only cause more pain for the prisoners. The filmmaker masterfully depicts the ugly truth about human conflicts: even the noblest causes, such as saving one’s life, result in pain and suffering during war.
“…he is captured by the enemy before setting foot on the battlefield.”
The second level is the technical side. What makes Reflection special is the camera work. Cinema should be about telling stories through the lens of a camera, and working as his director of photography, Vasyanovych, manages to pull this off brilliantly. Most scenes start as still-life paintings that gradually focus on the actors and their interaction with the surroundings. The movie tries to keep the audience as distant from the characters as possible, perhaps to make it easier for them to judge the protagonist and his decisions. Most scenes start with a wide shot, and as the camera zooms in, it feels like the audience is getting to know the characters more and more. Though repetition makes this method less effective by the end, it is fair to say that it provides a distinctive visual identity.
As a wise man once said, “No soldier leaves the battlefield unharmed.” Vasyanovych takes this quote to heart. As a doctor, Serhiy never shoots anyone or receives a bullet, but his pain comes from what he has witnessed and experienced. The film dehumanizes every aspect of fighting a war by showing its devastating consequences, whether it’s on the front line or in the military prison. Though the picture doesn’t rely much on acting, Lutskyi manages to portray Serhiy as a broken man quite well.
Perhaps the weakest chain in the link here is the pacing and runtime. The first half lacks significant dialogue, while the second half with catchy father-daughter conversations lacks enough substance. The movie rarely properly accompanies the drama with the spoken word, which is why it’s a bit difficult to sit through the whole two hours of Serhiy’s struggles without looking at your watch.
Reflection is a great war drama for those who like slow cinema. It is also a contemplative experience for those who love a deep and multi-layered cinematic experience. It does not bombard the audience with anti-war propaganda; neither does it drive to a conclusion. It just paints a picture of the war and lets the audience reflect on it.
"…a great war drama..."
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