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LOCARNO 2023 Competition

Review: Stepne


- Ukrainian director Maryna Vroda’s highly anticipated first feature negotiates the ghosts of her village’s past, which might soon be lost

Review: Stepne
Oleksandr Maksiakov in Stepne

In the running for the Locarno Film Festival’s Golden Leopard, Stepne [+see also:
film profile
confirms the talent of a courageous director with a deeply affecting approach. Melancholy yet hypnotic, Maryna Vroda’s debut feature film unearths the vestiges of a past needing to be examined in order to better understand the present, which is getting dangerously out of hand. Awarded the Palme d’Or in Cannes 2011 for her short film Cross-Country, the Ukrainian director is making a sophisticated and poetic debut in the world of feature films.

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As of the film’s opening images depicting the protagonist’s arrival in her hometown somewhere in the Ukrainian countryside (in actual fact, as disclosed by the director herself, it is Soumy in north-eastern Ukraine, which she came across after a great deal of location scouting with her DoP Andrii Lysetski), we understand the central role played by landscape within the film. A character in and of itself, the desolate, frozen and fading village which Anatoly (Oleksandr Maksiakov) is returning to in order to look after his dying mother, inevitably reminds us of the arid precision in many Italian neorealist films, Luchino Visconti’s The Earth Trembles first and foremost. What the director homes in on and imbues with cruel yet wonderful nuances, isn’t just the landscape but a snapshot of history animated by voices which turn into murmurs.

Ultimately, the style characterising Maryna Vroda’s film, verging on documentarian, draws its strength from stories, told with discretion and in cathartic depth by the elderly inhabitants of Soumy who don’t have much time left to express themselves after staying silent for so long. Together, these voices seem to trigger a torrent of shared pain which feeds into the rich and complex nature of Ukrainian identity. As the director herself admits, one of the film’s main aims is to build a bridge between the (unspoken) past and the present: hers and, more generally speaking, that of the new generations, which hangs dangerously in the balance. Without this vital cohesion, past mistakes will only be repeated, as confirmed by the current war.

Although, on one level, Stepne speaks of how Anatoly and his brother (played by Oleg Prymohenow) confront their past, involving family secrets and elderly fellow villagers but also hints of teenager loves, it’s the subtext inhabiting the story that immediately emerges. Wisely chosen by the director as custodians of a story to be preserved at all costs, the “real” inhabitants of Soumy feed into the main story, enriching it with a strange and ferocious poetry of truth.

Mainly depicting faces lined with fatigue, once-everyday activities which have now become obsolete (such as sweeping up chimney ash with a gigantic goose feather) and the intense cold of a landscape which seems to be holding its breath, Stepne draws warmth from candlelight and from the sense of humour of these people who can still manage a smile, in spite of it all.

Maryna Vroda’s debut feature film isn’t just a story about grief and goodbyes, it’s also about the resilience of a people who have experienced hell but have since managed to find their own gold in the solidarity of common people.  

Stepne was produced by Vrodastudio (Ukraine) in co-production with Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf (Germany), Tandem Production (Germany), Koi Studio (Poland), New Europe Film Sales (Poland) and Peter Kerekes Film (Slovakia). New Europe Film Sales are handling international sales.

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(Translated from Italian)

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