Issue 46 (2014)

Victoria Trofimenko: Brothers: The Final Confession (Brati: Ostannya Spovid’, Ukraine, 2013)

reviewed by José Alaniz © 2014

Religious symbolism, psychological drama and family tragedy come together in Victoria Trofimenko’s Brothers: The Final Confession, which transplants a novel by Swedish author Torgny Lindgren, Sweetness (Hummelhonung, 1995), to the present and past Carpathian Mountains. Though overtly apolitical – the few references to a world beyond the family farm include an item on a moonshot from the Communist newspaper Komsomolskiy Prapor, in flashback—the film nonetheless imparts the sense of a modern Ukraine coming to terms with the at times burdensome legacies of history (traditions involving religion and gender come under particular scrutiny). 

bratyaA woman identified only as “a writer” (Polovynka Natalka) comes to the wintry highland region of the Hutsuls[1] to finish a book on Saint Christopher. As it happens, she gets embroiled in a drama evocative of a different Biblical legend: that of Cain and Abel. Apart from the usual inconveniences an urbanite encounters in the country (spotty cell phone service, no running water), the writer must contend with the decades-old enmity between her host, the aged Voytko (Oleg Mosijchuk) and the estranged brother who lives in the next house over, Stanislav (Victor Demetrash). Over the course of the film the houseguest grows increasingly entangled in their family history, trauma and dysfunction, all while caring for the two dying men engaged in a perverse contest to see who will outlive the other. The writer becomes a conduit for communication between siblings who will spy on, scheme against but not speak to each other. She soon realizes this odd role gives her tremendous power to shape a new narrative and, she hopes, reconcile the brothers before it’s too late.

Such a plot could easily have gone the way of farce, or at least black comedy; Brothers: The Final Confession elects neither. With imagery at times recalling Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966); a ponderous soundtrack; unrelieved earnestness; a hackneyed color scheme (sunny summer/spring for the past, bleak winter for the present); enigmatic fragments of dialogue that make sense only in retrospect (“He cut her with a knife”); and an overwhelming atmosphere of decrepitude and death, the film constructs an apocalyptic vision—a world coming to an end, so that something new (midwifed by the writer) can take its place.

In this regard, the motif of Saint Christopher (“the one who bears Christ”), seems both apt and abstruse. The writer is indeed a kind of miracle worker, effecting a communion between the brothers; restoring artifacts long lost to them; even serving as sexual surrogate. But other aspects of the legend seem more applicable to her hosts/charges: the saint’s sufferings and canine head (as depicted in some versions) resonate more with the grotesquerie of the cancer-stricken, vomiting Voytko and the heart-diseased, obese, sugar-addicted Stanislav. It is the New Testament by way of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovyov Family (1876). In the end, the trope functions better as a commentary on Ukraine’s bid to rejoin the Western European sphere: just as a Christopher figure (Yuri Denysenkov) carries a child across a river in the film’s opening, putting him down through the magic of montage in Carpathian snow, so too does Trofimenko effectuate cultural alchemy, “carrying over” the plot from Sweden to her native land. Translation also connotes a “ferrying across.”

The film works best in such moments, which visually underscore the links between eras, individuals and spiritual realms through spatio-temporal transitions. As Christopher bears the child across the water, we see in the distance the car which bears the writer to her winter home. When Stanislav tells his guest about stealing and hiding away his brother’s toy as a child, within minutes of screen time she retrieves the wooden figure from beneath the house, placing it at Voytko’s bedside. Without a cut, the writer and Stanislav’s wife Yvha (Veronika Shostak)—an object of the brothers’ contention—can inhabit the shot, standing before the same wardrobe, trying on the same clothes, decades apart.    

bratyaThe feminine takes on a healing, maternal aspect, not only in terms of the plot. Many scenes revolve around the writer preparing or serving food, nursing the men not to health but to some sort of redemption. The camera lingers on her hands kneading dough, which overflows its vessel – evoking the cancer running rampant in Voytko’s body. But its sweaty sensuality signals also an unexpected tryst. The masculine, meanwhile, seems somehow culinarily unbalanced. Stanislav lures Yvha with sweets – but she later finds herself trapped in marriage to a man who eats nothing else. Craving her home region’s rich pork—“If I had known I would have to refuse salty food forever, Stanislav would’ve never managed to seduce me”—she becomes an easy target for Voytko’s alimentary and adulterous enticements. Yvha smiles eagerly as the fat sizzles on the pan, famished in more than one sense.

Despite such heavy-handed imagery—culminating in, yes, a self-crucifixion—Trofimenko advances the idea of the writer as the people’s savior. Precisely because she lies – that is, invents stories, creates new outcomes—she heals. Like the holy fools she evokes in an opening speech, she emerges as the catalyst for national renewal. In the end, she comes to “inhabit” Yvha, the abused tragic mother, as she abandons the mountains for new exploits, her book completed. The writer seems to take Voytko’s words, “Nobody has the right to die for it’s the best place on Earth,” to heart, fashioning a new story, a new Yhva, one not merely the aggrieved pawn of two sick men. If we are to judge from Brothers: The Final Confession, the sort of film supported by the state,[2] 21st-century Ukraine sees its enduring cultural legacy as one intimately tied to the Judeo-Christian past but jettisoning its patriarchal excesses, in its own way embracing feminism and fabulism, striding forward to modernity.

We see a more subtle sign of this new outlook in the image of a woman in a wheelchair attending the writer’s presentation at the start of the film. One of the estimated 2.64 million Ukrainians with disabilities, the audience-member stands out for the incongruity of such a body in the countryside, among the most inaccessible of spaces. Yet the simple fact of her inclusion in the scene (otherwise unmarked through the usual framing modes of pity or stigma), I would argue, “break[s] through the institutional and discursive barriers that marginalize [the disabled] in Ukrainian society” (Phillips 2014, 168).  For all its preoccupation with ancient religion and patriarchy, Brothers: The Final Confession is suffused with that sort of progressive political subtext.

José Alaniz
U of Washington, Seattle


Notes

1] The producers took considerable trouble to faithfully reproduce the linguistic and other particularities of this region. As explained by Pidhora-Hviazdovsky: “When adapting the story to the Hutsul way of life, [Trofimenko] was not helped by a linguist or a folklore specialist, but a regular speaker of the living local dialect, Oleh Hnativ, leader of the ‘Perkalaba’ music group from Ivano-Frankivsk. He was born and bred in Verkhovyna, so Hutsulshchyna (the Hutsul region) is in his blood. In two-three weeks, he adapted Victoria’s text, then recorded his reading of it, so that the actors could learn what for them, were the unusual sounds of the words.”

2] The film received support from the Ukrainian State Committee for Cinematography for half  its $2 million budget. See the film’s website press release.  

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Works Cited

Phillips, Sarah. 2014. “Citizens or ‘Dead Souls’?: An Anthropological Perspective on Disability and Citizenship in post-Soviet Ukraine.” Disability in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Ed. Michael Rasell and Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova. London: Routledge, pp.165-183.

Pidhora-Hviazdovsky, Yaroslav. 2012. “Brothers Comes to Life in the Carpathians.” The Ukrainian Week 6 July.


Brothers: The Final Confession, Ukraine, 2013
120 minutes, DCP, color
Director Victoria Trofimenko
Scriptwriter Victoria Trofimenko (adaptation of “Hummelhonung” novel by Torgny Lindgren)
Director of Photography Yaroslav Pilunskiy
Production Design Vlad Odudenko
Costume Design Irina Gergel
Music Sviatoslav Luniov
Sound Eugene Petrus
Editing Tatyana Khodakovskaya
Starring Natalka Polovynka, Roman Lutskiy, Victor Demetrash, Veronika Shostak, Orest Yagish, Mykola Bereza, Oleg Mosijchuk, Yuri Denysenkov
Producers Maxim Asadchiy, Igor Savychenko, Victoria Trofimenko, Igor Savichenko
Production Pronto Film

Victoria Trofimenko: Brothers: The Final Confession (Brati: Ostannya Spovid’, Ukraine, 2013)

reviewed by José Alaniz © 2014

Updated: 10 Oct 14