DMovies - Your platform for thought-provoking cinema
Ukrainian man returns to his precarious countryside village in order to tend his sick mother, in this beautiful yet monotonous riff on departure - from the 76th Locarno Film Festival


Anatoly (Oleksandr Maksiakov) is a middle-aged male about to enter the winter of his life. His mother Maria (Nina Antonova) is in the very late winter of her life. He travels to the Ukrainian countryside in order to care for her. His brother Alexey (Oleg Primogenov) is nearby, but it is Tolya who devotes the most time to the increasingly frail woman who barely recognises her own children. Shortly before she passes away, she shares the secret of a secret treasure hidden inside the shed. Was that an old-age delusion, or is there a valuable asset to be unearthed? “Tolya” (Anatoly’s nickname) is keen to find out. Meanwhile, he also reconnects with his long-lost, youth love Ania (Radmila Shegoleva).

This godforsaken village is the image of yesterday. The locals live in shabby houses with asbestos rooftops, and walls that have not seen a lick of paint since the day Stalin died. There is not a young person at sight. The headscarf-clad, wrinkly old ladies and their sullen, octogenarian husbands look like characters from a Soviet movie. USSR memorabilia and mementos are conspicuous, including a drawing of Lenin and a half poster of Stalin erected on a wooden structure (the fat moustache giving away his identity). This community is so precarious and deeply buried in the past that you would never guess that the story takes place in present-day Ukraine was it not for the brief appearance of a mobile phone. The remoteness of the area caters for the lack of mobile reception, reaffirming the sense of otherworldliness and detachment from the rest of Europe that prevails throughout the movie. There is no mention of the Ukrainian War (and that’s ok: it’s not mandatory that every single Ukrainian movie should directly address the Russian invasion).

The weather is wintry and inhospitable, adding the perfect finishing touch of melancholia to this twilight drama. The sense of isolation is highlighted by a bumpy bus ride, in the film’s opening sequence. The camera – presumably a subjective take from Antatoly’s point-of-view – reveals a long and windy dirt road covered in snow. The vast landscape too is covered in white, in contrast to the grey houses and the dark attire of the few and far between villagers. The cinematography is moody and gloomy, the colours mostly opaque. This is a movie that could have been made in black-and-white (as are the visual memories that audiences will take home with them).

Is a quiet dog that observes the mourning an augury of tragedy? The animal neatly embodies the overpowering sense of mourning that intoxicates the movie. His fate in unclear. Could he be devoured by the wolves, or simply die of starvation if left behind? The answer to this question has a profound resonance, bringing closure to this story of loss, grief, and coming to terms with the circle of life.

Stepne deserves credit for its realistic portrayal of a little-known face of Ukraine, and for the convincing performances (both Maksiakov and the elderly actors are honest and candid). At times, the movie feels like an observational, almost sensory documentary, a fly-on-the-wall type of register. Ukrainian director Maryna Vroda, however, had bigger intentions. She explains that Stepne reflects upon “the silence of past generations about their history”. It takes an eye extremely familiar with Soviet history in order to grasp the inferred topics. While I recognise that the characters are mostly silent (the conversations are sparse and laconic), I have absolutely no idea what is it that these people are refusing to discuss, and which taboos the movie is attempting to address. A woman’s choice to speak in her native Russian tongue is briefly challenged, presumably a comment on language as a geopolitical weapon. But that’s about it.

The biggest problem with Stepne is that it fails to enrapture viewers. It possesses neither the storytelling panace nor the visual splendour required in order to keep viewers hooked for nearly two hours. Instead, it becomes monotonous roughly 30 minutes from the beginning. This is not Alexander Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997). Maryna Vroda’s debut lacks the vigour and the aesthetic supremacy of its Russian counterpart, also a movie about an ageing son caring for his dying mother.

Stepne just premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Locarno Film Festival. Maryna Vroda won the Palme d’Or in 2011 for her short Cross Country.

By Victor Fraga - 07-08-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

DMovies Poll

Are the Oscars dirty enough for DMovies?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Most Read

Forget Friday the 13th, Paranormal Activity and the [Read More...]
Just a few years back, finding a film [Read More...]
A lot of British people would rather forget [Read More...]
Pigs might fly. And so Brexit might happen. [Read More...]
Sexual diversity is at the very heart of [Read More...]
Films quotes are very powerful not just because [Read More...]

Read More

The Rye Horn (O Corno)

Jaione Camborda

Victor Fraga - 27-09-2023

Maria has to juggle harvesting, midwifery and illegal abortions, in this dark and sullen drama set during the 1970s in rural Galicia, Northwestern Spain - live from the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival [Read More...]

The Beast (La Bête)

Bertrand Bonello

Nick Kouhi - 27-09-2023

Bertrand Bonello's drama about two would-be lovers bearing the same name is intellectually rigorous as well as stylistically dazzling, and perhaps his most audacious work to date - from the 61st New York Film Festival [Read More...]


María Alché , Benjamín Naishtat

Victor Fraga - 27-09-2023

Philosophy professor fights to preserve his position and his legacy, in Argentinean lighthearted comedy with distinct political flavours - from the Official Competition of the 71st Donostia Zinemaldia [Read More...]

Facebook Comment

Website Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *