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My Joy

by Chris Cabin, 29.09.2011, www.filmcritic.com

Everything is rotten in Sergei Loznitsa's excellent debut narrative feature, My Joy, finally receiving North American distribution nearly a year after its stateside premiere at last year's New York Film Festival. Opening on a close-up of a churning cement mixer that looks suspiciously like a swirling pool of excrement, the director quickly sets his bleak comedic tone with the subsequent sequence, in which a fresh corpse is chucked into an unmarked grave before receiving a bath of muck and getting buried under a truckload of soil. By the time Georgy (Viktor Nemets), an amiable truck driver (not to mention the closest thing we have to a proper protagonist), gets harassed by a pair of manipulative cops, the filmmaker, who also wrote the film's script, has thoroughly submerged us in his own oddly compelling, hugely cynical worldview.

An avant-garde documentarian for most of his career, Loznitsa centers the film on Georgy's doomed travels through the Ukrainian countryside but this post-war nightmare is hardly what you might call Georgy's story. In fact, the narrative focus swings wildly minute-by-minute, even as the director's mood remains consistently strong. Loznitsa's interest in Georgy has almost nothing to do with a narrative engine and everything to do with having an on-screen proxy, to supply us with a tour guide of sorts. He doesn't say much (nor do many of the characters) and, as one nincompoop puts it, he rarely interferes with anyone. But that doesn't mean that he is immune to the pain and grief that those who surround him are so ambivalently ready to dole out.

Georgy is beaten, cheated, belittled, embarrassed, unjustly jailed and raped but his tortures do not seem entirely unique. Loznitsa's main focus, as with many of his documentary work, is on faces and landscapes, especially when it comes to the dark histories they often hide. Not all that long into the film, Georgy makes his way through a crowded marketplace, after being cursed out by a teenage prostitute he attempted to give charity too. Loznitsa's incredibly fluid and active camera, wielded by the great Romanian DP Oleg Mutu, wanders off in the middle of this, searching out the denizens that hide behind the marketplace. This happens often but rather than become a near-absurdist study in storytelling (like Raul Ruiz's towering Mysteries of Lisbon or The Saragossa Manuscript), this fascination with outlying action and characters brings out a richness, a beguiling interest in humanity that at once works with and against the meta-cynical bent of Loznitsa's script.

Sometimes these digressions bring us back in time, to witness the brutality and hysteria of life during wartime, under Hitler and Stalin's proverbial thumbs. And at one point, they vault us forward, into the future where, having been struck in the head with a log by thieves, Georgy has become literally dumbstruck. Bearded and muted, Georgy has become something like a zombie for a lonely woman and her bastard son, helping the boy out at work and providing the mother with a warm body to hump. He is, in fact, nearly left for dead until an old acquaintance finds him and attempts to save him. But at this point, the old idiom of "no good deed goes unpunished" has been tattooed on our left ventricle and when two officials stop by to shop around a corpse, it becomes unquestionably clear that things aren't going to end well.

Despite this unremitting pessimism, My Joy ends up being a lively work of howling wickedness, as despairing as it is sarcastic. This is to say that Loznitsa does not take his own cynicism as reason enough to make boring, turgid cinema dressed in a few clever lines. On the contrary, one can see Loznitsa burrowing into himself here, indulging in the same traits that typified his non-fiction work in a narrative context. (In many ways, this is a more entertaining, less ambitious brother to Patrick Keiller's superb, undistributed Robinson in Ruins.) In Loznitsa's 2002 documentary, The Settlement, we are slowly clued into the fact that the workers we have been watching are actually part of an experimental work therapy; the imagery hides its true nature. In My Joy, the truth is largely imagined but it's laid out plainly, and it hits with an uncommon, potent mix of heartbreak and horror.