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Telling the Story of the Holodomor

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In his great movies and Schindler’s List (1993) and Lincoln (2012), Steven Spielberg provided a good model for adapting tragic historic drama to celluloid. Instead of taking a sprawling subject like the Holocaust or the Civil War and trying to capture all of it, you narrowcast. Take one relatively small patch of time, such as Lincoln’s attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, or a few years in the life of World War II hero Oskar Schindler, and focus on that. It sharpens the plot and suspense and intensifies the performance of the actors.

Such a lesson could have been put to good use in Bitter Harvest, a nobly conceived yet not entirely successful new film by the Canadian director George Mendeluk. Bitter Harvest tells the story of the Holodomor—the famine produced by the communist policies of Joseph Stalin (played by Gary Oliver) in Ukraine in the 1930s. The movie uses the experiences of a couple, Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks), to personalize the story. Yuri and Natalka are kulaks, or farming peasants, in this agriculturally rich region just after the Bolsheviks have won the civil war that the Russian Revolution touched off in 1917. The couple are depicted from childhood through the time of their courtship, marriage, and pregnancy, these milestones corresponding to the worsening catastrophe in Ukraine, one of the captive nations, that would in the end suffer the deaths of between seven and 10 million inhabitants.

This is a story worth telling, and it is refreshing that Hollywood is finally doing something to address the evils of communism. But there’s simply too much in Bitter Harvest. Any single storyline of the many contained here could’ve been isolated and used as the subject of a different and  stronger film.

Yuri and Natalka’s village is plundered by Stalin’s collectivist goons, setting up a Braveheart-style revenge tale. The Bolsheviks try to stamp out Christianity, so there is an element of Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence. But then Yuri, an artist, decamps for Kiev, where he meets a teacher, Professor Temchuk (Edward Akrout). Professor Temchuk encourages Yuri to embrace modernism, using “your subconscious” instead of strict representation—and suddenly Bitter Harvest is a film about the power of artistic freedom. Akrout as Temchuk is a warm and focused screen presence, and an entire film could easily have been made about his and Yuri’s relationship to art and to each other, and about what happens when Temchuk attracts the attention of the Soviet commissars. But the good professor is only on screen for a brief amount of time before he disappears, one of the millions of victims of Stalin’s terror.

When Yuri protests his friend’s fate, he is tossed in jail, and suddenly we are watching a prison-escape picture. Director Mendeluk (Lonesome Dove: The Series) is to be commended for taking on this material, but in his hands it has a made-for-TV quality. Things move quickly, making it difficult develop a deep connection to the characters. When a priest, Father Ostapovitch (Richard Ashton) defies Soviet enforcer Sergei (a convincingly malevolent Tamer Hassan), he’s shot in cold blood, but not before delivering the line, “Hell is the inability to love.” It’s a good line and Ashton is a good actor, but he’s gone much too soon as the plot gallops along.

Veteran actor Terrence Stamp can command a screen, but as Yuri’s grandfather Ivan, he’s given weak lines. (“It’s time for the boy to learn to use a sword.”) All the while, flashbacks try to keep us interested in the relationship between Yuri and Natalka, who is still back in the besieged village. There is the sense that Mendeluk had a huge amount of material to fit into two hours, and in the attempt to shoehorn everything in, subtlety, which can slowly build to powerful dramatic moments, got lost. In Schindler’s List, for example, one of the most powerful scenes is also one of the most quotidian: the opening shots of a pen, inkwell, and paper, tools of the imagination being put to use by the Nazis to create the list of those being sent to their deaths. Totalitarians are evil, yes, but they are also petty.

Bitter Harvest screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover’s dialogue is stiff, with characters saying things like “He won’t fight, he’s not a man” and, “Starve them all.” The communists were brilliant at concocting dense, pseudoscientific theories for everything from revolution to the price of a button. A depiction of this tangled contamination of common sense would have served the movie far better than the clichés that pass these people’s lips. Quentin Tarantino may be an overrated B-movie maker, but his gift for building slow menace from loquacious, demented authority figures would have been great here. The filmmakers could have easily used one of Stalin’s own speeches, like the one where he blamed the kulaks for food shortages (his  justification for ordering that their farms be seized by the government and collectivized). Unfortunately, Oliver just doesn’t convince as Stalin. His face is much too friendly, and he delivers his lines with smug nastiness rather than the corrosive insanity that drove the psyche of a man responsible for up to 50 million deaths.

Still, Bitter Harvest is not a bad film. Several of its scenes are quite powerful, and it picks up considerable steam as it approaches the climax and Yuri and Natalka sneak onto a train to attempt to escape into Poland. The soundtrack features Ukrainian music, and the costumes are gorgeous, a celebration of the unique indigenous beauty of the Ukrainian people. Religion is treated as a liberating force, which is unusual, if not shocking, for a Hollywood movie. Irons as Yuri and Barks as Natalka are strong, capable leads, bravely enduring the exhaustion of being buffeted by almost every conceivable tragedy. Despite its flaws, Bitter Harvest deserves a wide viewership. If it founders at the box office, it deserves to have a strong second life on streaming video.

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