Stepne: Beyond the War

in 76th Locarno International Film Festival

by Ivonete Pinto

“Don’t let us disappear,” Ukrainian director Maryna Vroda said upon accepting the Best Director award for Stepne at the Locarno film festival 2023. A co-production involving Germany, Poland and Slovakia (besides Ukraine), the film evokes a distinct war, not the one fought against the Russian invasion. The project for the film started about ten years ago and was interrupted for several reasons, many of which were related to its topic. Stepne delves into the lives of those who fight for survival in an abandoned village in the course of history.

Shot in the Sumy region, the screenplay by the director and Kirill Shuvalov carries echoes of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, marked by losses, separations and the rapid transformation of the country into destructive capitalism. This condition forces the youth to move to larger cities and compels those who stay to sell their land to unscrupulous businessmen – a situation that yields even grotesque and surreal moments. There is no future for old people, and the atmosphere of melancholy fills every layer of the film.

In her feature film debut (she previously received the Palme d’Or at Cannes for her short film Cross in 2011), Maryna Vroda infuses the narrative with a touch of poetic sensitivity. The minimalist plot, the discreet musical score (Anton Baibakov) and the economy in the dialogues draw attention. Especially the “unspoken” moments that convey more than words between the characters of two brothers (Oleksandr Maksiakov and Oleg Primogenov) who, at an advanced age, reunite after their mother’s death. The brother who spent the last years taking care of her and her elderly dog represents the struggle of a disappearing culture. Ultimately, it is the story of a vanishing country.

The brother who had already chosen to live far away in order to make ends meet in the new economic system is only interested in selling the house, situated on a patch of land where a multinational factory will be built. His pragmatic approach, even regarding the dog, may shock viewers, but is accepted with resignation by his brother.

Naturally, all this context is overshadowed in the real world by the backdrop of the ongoing war, with its initial conflicts dating back to 2014.

Some of the crew members perished while Maryna Vroda was finishing the film, including the driver and a set assistant. The director herself, very emotional at the award ceremony, lost family members and moved to Germany. Therefore, war is present in the film in a transverse way, but inseparable.

It is worth mentioning that the Romanian director Radu Jude, who was in Locarno with Do Not Expect too Much from the End of the World, took the stage to thank the jury for his Special Jury Prize, and in his sarcastic and blunt style, uttered harsh words against Vladimir Putin and provoked the Swiss in their house. He thanked the Swiss, where his God (Godard) resides, and asked them not to stand by Putin now, as they stood by Hitler during World War II, but to stand with Ukraine. He didn’t say “Zelensky” but “Ukraine”, which makes a lot of difference.

Thus, Stepne can be read from several angles; but it is important to emphasize that the awards it received at the Locarno Film Festival, at least the one from FIPRESCI carried a significance beyond the political message (which is different from what happened with the Golden Leopard).

The Critics’ Award, based on broader criteria, which focus more on aesthetics and narrative ─ i.e., artistic merits in the strict sense ─, highlighted precisely the mastery of mise-en-scène and the young director’s ability to address a theme that involves not only the death of people, but the death of an era. In this way, the film is in the field of memory, timeless and universal. Incidentally, the title Stepne (steppe, prairie, pampa…) suggests something between desert and forest, between death and life. Let’s hope it gets distributed as widely as it deserves.

Ivonete Pinto
Edited by Birgit Beumers