By Matthew D'Abate
No one needs to be reminded walking into a Russian film, specifically one taking place in war torn and impoverished Ukraine, that things may get a little dark.
Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy storms past simple reflections on the desolation of the working classes and dips further into the River Styx. There is no morality in Loznitsa's modern Russia, or if some shred of it still exists, it will be preyed upon.
The film opens with an unconscious man dragged across a field and tossed into churning cement. There is no explanation or ceremony; the death is cold, silent, and goes unnoticed. Much like the characters in the sardonically titled My Joy; all are noiseless, clothed in ragged wears. Dismal faces peer towards the camera like walking headstones, painting a grimness that chills the skin.
Georgy is the Everyman: stoic, clean, hard working, his eyes less wounded then the lifeless and tired wife he avoids before departing to drive flour across the serene Ukrainian countryside.
As with any modern Russian tale, we may mark now a checklist of obligatory narratives. Along with the essential gloom of the human heart, we must first meet an old man who tells of murder under Stalin rule, the first ghost of My Joy.
"I no longer have a name," the old man tells Georgy.
The old man vanishes as fast as he appeared at a stop for gas. Stopped further down the road by a car accident, Georgy is accosted by a wicked child prostitute, played with jaded, guilelessness by Olga Shuvalova. Georgy takes her back to the truck with no malicious intents, only to feed her.
"There is no friendship here," she says, coldly smoking a cigarette. She too is hardened, another human being doing whatever she must to survive.
The young prostitute scolds Georgy for not hiring her services, and irritated by his generosity, condemns him, storming off at the market square.
Loznitsa has little mercy for his characters; each framed quietly, every scar and pain on display. It not surprising the director has been a documentary filmmaker since 2000 - his most recent film's subject is St. Petersburg. The references to existential themes mirrored in Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground are expected.
The soot on the trucks, the weathered homes, are all frayed, and the common people move like lost ghosts in incessant misery. Cinematographer's Oleg Mutu use bleak green and dull crud rust, reminiscent of the depicted life under Stazi rule in Florian Henckel von Donnersmark's excellent The Lives Of Others, paints a country where everything has been worn bone thin. Gypsy thieves line the road and no one is to be trusted.
Georgy's major troubles begin after he is injured horribly by roadside tramps. He is dazed for the rest of the film, all previous life goes cold from his grey eyes.
Here is where the film veers toward rampant nihilism: An expertly vacant Georgy, ominously played by Viktor Nemets, walks bewildered in this dire survey of the human soul, and the emptiness left by corruption and moral bankruptcy.
One of the thieves explains, "It is not a road. It is a direction," when Georgy asks where the road leads. My Joy is headed in only one direction, the dark path of a decent human tested and broken by a social system of oppression that would push even the most saintly to violent, brutal ends.
My Joy is showing at Cinema Village, on 12th St. in Manhattan.