Leonid was once a legendary smuggler. He could run for miles – supplies strapped to his back – to deliver goods from his Ukrainian town to nearby Romania. But those days are over. He’s just returned home from a work stint in Poland and is now digging a well for the local church. He wants to be a good role model for his teenaged son, Nazar. But when the latter accidentally burns down the community’s church, Leonid must return to a life of crime so he can pay for reconstruction. Soon thereafter, he finds himself caught in the crosshairs of a local crime boss, Mr. Oreste.
These are the broad strokes of Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s remarkable feature debut, Pamfir (2022). But the film – which itself had to be “smuggled” out of Ukraine, after the Russian invasion – is so much more than a crime drama. With hints of the fantastical (elaborate pagan masks and outfits, in preparation for an upcoming carnival, adorn many interiors), the writer-director has crafted an allegory that tackles political and religious corruption, shifting conceptions of masculinity, multigenerational family trauma, and the Russia-Ukraine War.
The narrative’s emotional core is the relationship between the father and son, played by Oleksandr Yatsentyuk and Stanislav Potiak. Leonid may be the epitome of brute force – his titular nickname refers to a stone – but he shows nothing but love and warmth toward Nazar, his wife Olena (Solomiya Kyrylova), and his younger brother Victor (Ivan Sharan). Still, an animalistic fighter remains inside him (we hear of a violent confrontation in the past that ended with Leonid partially blinding his father). But such an animal resides in us all, Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk seems to suggest; moreover, sometimes the beast needs to be let out, if we want to survive.
Pamfir is also a technical marvel, Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk and cinematographer Nikita Kuzmenko relying almost exclusively on extended tracking shots. Some generate suspense; an early smuggle run through a fog-enshrouded forest is almost unbearably tense (and darkly humorous; the men swallow mouthfuls of erectile dysfunction pills as stimulants, in preparation for the long run ahead). Others are so inconspicuous that they’re easy to overlook; the opening shot, set in a barn filled with carnival outfits, lasts roughly four minutes. None, however, feel gimmicky or ostentatious. The camera remains at eye-level with the characters throughout, as if we’re just another person in the group: hiding, fighting, and struggling with the members of this troubled community. The effect is often painfully immersive.
Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk never sugarcoats Leonid’s dire life situation, though he does offer some hard-earned hope (“Nothing is impossible to a willing heart,” the father says). But hope isn’t just given to these characters. When the world growls at them, they growl back.
Pamfir is in UK cinemas from May 5th