The sounds of heavy breathing and rustling form the first few seconds of Pamfir, the debut feature film of Ukrainian director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk. These are sounds which become, as we watch, a soundtrack to the life to which the protagonist has bound himself; a life of sneaking hushedly through the woods, avoiding being seen, and inevitably being seen. Leonid, nicknamed Pamfir, is forced to face afresh the demons – quite literally – of his former life of smuggling, after an incident involving his son places the family into a position of economic desperation.
Set in a small village in rural Ukraine on the Romanian border, Pamfir explores a man’s battle with his conscience as he tries his very hardest to do the best he can for his family at the expense of his own morality. The pastoral Carpathian mountains transform into a landscape of nightmares for the entire family as Pamfir becomes ensnared in the terrifying matrix of organised crime. It is a stunning debut from Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, who wrote the film’s screenplay as well as directing it.
Oleksandr Yatsentyuk is suitably brooding as Pamfir, navigating the feelings of guilt which accompany his silent resolve to take on one final smuggling mission. At times, his stoic heroism tragically verges on reckless bravery.
At the core of the story is the relationship between Pamfir and his teenage son Nazar, and makes for some gut-wrenching scenes. Alongside Yatsentyuk, young actor Stanislav Potiak is a quiet tour de force as Nazar. His innocence rings especially poignantly against the merciless figures into whose hands his father falls. Solomiya Kyrylova as Pamfir’s wife Olena brilliantly handles the apprehension and heartbreak she feels on behalf of her husband and son, and, indeed, for herself.
Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk deploys symbolism with a knowing hand. The traditional masks and costumes of the pagan Malanka festival, for which the villagers in Pamfir are preparing, are an eerie addition to the film, and cast a fairytale uncanniness over the action. The recurring image of the snarling, animalistic mask worn atop a bristling costume of hay appears like an omen, of some inexplicable doom, as unidentifiable as the person within it. Interesting also is this contrast between the village’s preparations for a celebration, and the struggle at the forefront of the film, which highlights the importance of keeping spirits high even in the face of difficulty.
The film was in its post-production stage when Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year. Whilst it does not have the conflict as a central theme, it occasionally nods to the Russian aggression which was already rocking Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Pamfir enjoyed a successful run in the festival circuit, earning a number of accolades, including the Raindance award for Best Cinematography. It’s not surprising; Mykyta Kuzmenko’s cinematography could be a textbook for arthouse filmmakers. Most scenes are shot in one continuous take, with characters coming in and out of frame, making for a dazzling, quasi-theatrical viewing experience which plunges the viewer intimately into the lives of the village’s inhabitants.
Wide-angle shots are frequently employed to showcase the splendour of the Carpathian mountains, from a foggy autumn afternoon when the trees are bathed in a thick soup of cloud, to a wintry day when snow has already coated the soil and the leaves in a delicate, untarnished sheen. The landscape, though sublime, serves to emphasise the isolation of this village – and the entrapment of its inhabitants under the titanium fist of the “boss”, Mr. Orest. There is simply no way out for Pamfir.
Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk delivers a raw and unpretentious thriller as his debut feature. It’s not easy viewing, but it is certainly hard-hitting and beautiful.