An intimate journey to rediscover one’s roots: “Stepne” at the 2024 goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film5 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Review, Reviews
Through precisely tailored, slow, and muted documentary-like frames, filmmaker Maryna Vroda weaves a micro-story suspended in time, beyond the strict boundaries of historical and political underpinnings. She centres her story on a man who, faced with a sense of finality, succumbs to reflections on what is transitory and what remains.

Stepne follows Anatoly (Oleksandr Maksiakov), an ordinary, unassuming middle-aged man who returns to his hometown to care for his ailing, dying mother. Despite the long separation from the place where he grew up, Anatoly does not feel alienated, and as soon as he arrives, a flood of emotional encounters and feelings emerge. Whenever he is not with his mother, he spends his time with Anna, presumably a lover from a distant past, and his neighbour Illich, a blatant local thief who carries off all the valuables from the homes of the recently deceased and who has made it his mission to protect these treasures from oblivion should one of the family members return to claim them. Time goes by slowly, and as Anatoly adapts to this different pace of life, he reconnects with the village, the reality of which he was no longer a part of the moment he left the family home. He listens to old records with Anna and draws her portrait in an aged, dusted off sketchbook, unconsciously immersing himself in the past, from which he must eventually emerge when the present catches up with him at the moment of his mother’s inevitable passing. 

When the time comes for the funeral to be held, Anatoly’s brother Lyosha also arrives to bid farewell to his mother. The funeral brings together the entire village community, who sing and escort the deceased to her eternal rest. Upon their return, the mourners plunge into reverent reminiscences, recalling their friend’s gentle personality and perseverance, qualities capable of bringing the whole group together. Soon after, however, the elegies become blurred as recollections of the earlier hardships of the Soviet period and even the war come to the forefront. As memories flow seamlessly, unconstrained by space and time, Anatoly says goodbye to Anna. This is yet another person he holds close to his heart and is forced to leave behind in this land he already does not fully belong to. Now all that’s left is to lease his mother’s land to a local businessman so he can move on, leaving the village of Stepne behind.  

The director has succeeded in creating a complex, personal story. In this way, the film can appeal to a significant part of the Ukrainian audience, who lived through the unstable times of political and economic transition after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and whose sum of experiences, gained while living in the USSR and in modern Ukraine, forms the collective history of the state. 

It is this transience that the director hoped to capture: “I wanted to talk about treasure and heritage. […] It’s about our human connection, this higher-level existential question about ourselves. Firstly, it is cultural heritage, family heritage, discussion about values during the changes that the Ukrainian society went through, from a post-Soviet country to a democratic and European country. This moment of change is interesting to me because the western capitalist world doesn’t like the old world from the Soviet time. The current form of capitalism in Ukraine has made Ukraine into something in-between, something like a grey zone. The change was brutal for this group of people, who are now retired, because they lived in the past and not in the future.” 

Anatoly, seemingly detached from this semi-extinct world, gradually begins to immerse himself in it upon his return, but does not pass judgement on the endemic Sovietness that surrounds him. In one of the more remarkable scenes, in which he plays chess with Illich, the subject of passing on traditions and the tendency of today’s younger generation to stage revolutions comes up in their conversation. According to Illich, progress is a form of degradation, a kind of entropy. For the old man, accustomed to a fixed order, tradition is a sanctity, an elementary, indissoluble concept that binds the nation together and helps the existing eternal laws to guide the actions of future generations.

Stepne as a project was born in 2020. Vroda, who previously won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for Cross-Country, wanted to return to her hometown and capture the world she knew from her childhood, which for many may soon be a fading memory. She invited the inhabitants of Stepne and the surrounding villages to participate in her film, whose authenticity won the hearts of juries, critics and audiences at numerous festivals, earning her multiple nominations and awards, including at the Locarno Film Festival, where she won the Best Director Award and the Critics’ Prize. 

A universal, meditative elegy on the concept of facing mortality, this film will appeal to fans of slow-paced narratives and minimalist visuals that must be deciphered with concentration, one frame at a time. The documentary sensibility with which the director captures the story allows us to vivisect the transcendental reality to which we are invited. When we finally leave Stepne together with Anatoly, he departs with his violin under his arm, a souvenir of the world gone by, and we do so with the feeling of having accompanied him on a journey to his inner self. The Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu once dedicated his film Amores perros to his son Luciano, who died prematurely, with the words “Because we are also what we have lost.” This is the perfect encapsulation of Maryna Vroda’s beautiful story, at once melancholic and so very human. 

Feature Image: Stepne
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