In “porcelain war”, a resilient Ukrainian couple divides their time between two seemingly antithetical activities: when it comes to starting Slava Leontyev He’s not training fellow civilian soldiers in the ongoing fight against Russia’s invasion, he and his partner Anya Stasenko are skilled ceramists, casting and painting delicate porcelain figures inspired by nature and local folklore. If the title already suggests something in that disparity, this emotional debut from Leontyev and the American co-director Brendan Bellomo He leaves nothing to chance to ensure we get it: we are told that porcelain is “fragile but eternal and can be restored after hundreds of years.” Lest we miss the point, the couple’s combined voiceover later offers a more forceful paraphrase: “Ukraine is like porcelain: easy to break, but impossible to destroy.”
The metaphor is then quite clear; Whether it’s complex enough to support a feature-length documentary is another question. “Porcelain War” thrives on contrast, many of it poignant. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Slava and Anya lived a bucolic life in rural Crimea, and the film often abruptly cuts to golden magic hour images of that idyllic recent past: wandering and foraging in the forest with his fighting dog. Frodo, soaking in sun-drenched lakes, crafting in their rustic cabin, and the cold gray light of their current urban existence in war-torn Kharkiv, where they moved rather than fleeing the country entirely. There, his expertise in arms and his enduring commitment to creating art are framed as two halves of a united resistance effort: war balanced by love, bloodshed by beauty.
Enamored of this theoretically unified dichotomy, Leontyev and Bellomo do not delve into its conflicting everyday ramifications or its effect on the couple’s devoted relationship. The jumps between cozy images of their domestic life together (with the delicate, fanciful art that emerges from them) and the uncomfortable first-person combat footage from the Bakhmut front are jarring by design, which gives this documentary, so otherwise modestly conceived, a raw impact that perhaps helped it win the Grand Jury Prize in the American documentary section at Sundance. What is missing are the most magnified details, the moral and psychological consequences, of the extraordinary routine of Slava and Anya, now guided by a double vocation to create and destroy.
Leontyev presents his own subjective wartime experience with vivid sensory aplomb, the dynamically roving camera (often directed by his close friend Andrey Stefanov) accompanied by a feverish, noisy score by DakhaBrakha, a self-described “ethical chaos” band with headquarters in Kiev. Anxieties that are less easy to express give way to a focus on more poetic ideals and images. Fine porcelain figurines of woodland creatures, their bodies painted with rich pastel ecosystems, function as a hopeful, even redemptive, symbolic counterpoint to the carnage and danger of their current work; For such small and precious items, they do a lot of heavy lifting. Later, Slava and Anya’s skills overlap to more disturbing effect when she gives a whimsical paint job to one of the bomber drones deployed by Saigon, their portentously named deployed volunteer military unit: We later see it. in action on Russian infantrymen marked, a colorfully striped death dragonfly.
The filmmakers make liberal use of camera drones to capture these other drones in action; The resulting scenes of aerial warfare are dizzyingly impressive and disconcertingly enthusiastic. Bellomo, an accomplished visual effects supervisor whose credits include the 2012 Sundance hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is attuned to the shocking sensations of combat both on and above the ground, and, unsurprisingly, he sympathizes with the aesthetic passions of his subjects. In a pair of cleverly animated sequences, his artwork comes fluidly to life, though the effect is little more than beautifying.
Bellomo, however, is not a penetrating enough observer or interviewer to bring out the sincere human doubts or fears that his two main subjects do not express, and their joint narrative seems more stoically inspiring than confessional. “It is vitally important to smile from time to time,” Anya says of his creations, further explaining that he is “making art for our time, for our country.” But most of the time we see Anya with a defiant and hopeful smile; The film’s portrait of a wartime marriage is moving in its depiction of their mutual affection, but any more anguished intimacy under difficult circumstances is kept out of sight.
When the film’s attention focuses on cameraman Stefanov, a starker perspective emerges. A former painter who, unlike his friends, feels unable to produce art in the midst of so much turmoil, recounts for several devastating minutes the terrible experience of leading his wife and two daughters to the safety of the Polish border, ensuring by little step in the face of the terrible situation. traffic queues, gasoline shortages and Russian bombings, and being allowed only the most perfunctory goodbyes when the border gates were closed. It is disproportionately heartbreaking testimony to his lateral position in the proceedings. Likewise, his devastated concern that the separation would forever affect her bond with her children was stronger than Anya’s parallel comment (over images of a pristine porcelain mollusk) that “a refugee is a snail.” without shell.” In “The Porcelain War,” the reality of living in a destroyed country tends to outweigh any metaphor that accompanies it.