A quiet, cynical and darkly humorous look at Ukrainian life and hopeless dreams of escape that feels both alien and entirely relatable.
This Ukrainian film from director Antonio Lukich starts deceptively, with a mediaeval set black and white scene featuring two monks being offered Christ’s baby tooth by a travelling salesman, an amusing bit of conmanship that has little to do with the rest of the film beyond being some sort of vague metaphor for something or other. The film itself – a very contemporary story – is a more blunt examination of both life in modern-day Ukraine and the stresses between parents and children. AndrIy LIdagovskiy plays Vadim, a ludicrously lanky and floppy-haired sound engineer and wannabe musician who is hired by a Canadian video game company to record the sounds of Ukrainian animals for a Noah’s Ark game – the idea being that, unlike their complacent Canadian cousins, Ukrainian animals (and, by implication, the people) have a despairing desperation to their voices. He’s offered a huge bonus is he can record the sound of the elusive Rakhiv Mallard, a bird found only in the Transcarpathian wastelands – a decent amount of money and the opportunity to escape to Canada and the good life.
Much of the film follows Vadim and his mother (Irma VItovska), a taxi driver roped into helping him travel around recording sounds as they bicker and argue about the usual sort of things you find mothers and sons arguing about in movies – him moving away, her lack of grandchildren and so on. There’s an authentic sweetness in their relationship that allows these cliches to feel natural, even if she is perhaps not the harridan that the film sometimes demands. Vadim is a suitably awkward character, however, and there are some amusing and repeated verbal misunderstandings that are mildly amusing throughout the film, even as it suddenly takes a dark turn when he heads out on his own and attracts the attentions of shifty militias and border guards in Transcarpathia who take him for a spy.
This is a slight film, as the title suggests – it sits somewhere between comedy and drama, never quite becoming either (you’re more likely to smile than laugh out loud, and the relationships never feel developed enough for you to be overly involved in the fate of the characters). But there’s a certain charm here that is unexpectedly engaging as the story progresses, and the narrative shift towards the end is unexpected and unsettling. Much of it is, indeed, almost silent – Vadim is a man of few words – though the film is backed with a synth score that ought to be intrusive but isn’t (though the inclusion of a few pop songs is a rather jarring return to normality that I could’ve lived without).
I suspect that this is a film that probably speaks more to a local audience, where the political upheavals of recent years are still very relevant than it does to a more international one, but I think that we can all relate to the frustrations of Vadim, forever belittled by people who don’t understand what he does (he tries to explain being an artist to his mother, but often refers to himself as a “businessman” who “exports to Western countries”) and the sense of not quite fitting in with the world around you. That LIdagovskiy is so tall and skinny makes him the butt of some physical humour, but it is also used to show just how removed he is from everyone else.
There is, significantly, a strange – at least when viewed through Western secular eyes – Christianity running through the film. At first, it seems like another character quirk of the mother, but the film itself seems to have a certain religious reverence that is a touch unsettling. It is perhaps all caught up in the film’s theme of shame – shame of your country and culture is ultimately what drives both Vadim and, it seems, the film – and a sort of redemption. It feels odd and alien and disconcerting, but then, so does the film as a whole – while the Ukraine is clearly recognisable as a European country, it is also entirely different, and the film itself seems fully aware of just how weird the culture it shows is; perhaps because modern Ukraine is weird even to those who have lived their all their lives. In a sense, the movie feels as much an ethnographic exploration as the one that Vadim is undertaking. This is helped by Lukich’s visual style, full of expansive shots and long takes that contrast the deceptive serenity of the countryside with the cramped urban environments where characters are often odd and threatening (there are several moments with supporting players who have fixed grins that seem to mask ill-intent, but who are actually harmless). There is the clear influence of David Lynch is the film’s sense of off-balanced eccentricity at times (the naming of a motel as the ‘Twin Peaks’ might be a knowing nod) and we are left to wonder how much of this is seen through the eyes of Vadim, already a misfit who sees his entire country as something to flee at the first opportunity.
There’s a curious serenity and sense of detachment to My Thoughts Are Silent that is at once, conversely, entrancing and disengaging – my attention wandered from time to time, but I was also hooked in enough to want to see where this would go (and if nothing else, it was always clear that Vadim was not going to succeed in his dreams of escape; the only question was what exactly would happen to scupper his plans). We probably need more ephemeral stories right now – quiet, reflective, slightly cynical stories that take the elements of road trip cinema and pare them back to the minimal requirements. If you are feeling stressed or wound-up, this might be a great film to relax with, as even the most dramatic moments have a stillness and, yes, silence about them.
My Thoughts Are Silent is available to watch as part of the Raindance Film Festival 2020 on October 30th (with a director Q&A) and November 1st.
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