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Mysterium Occupation (2004)

Okkupatsiya. Misterii (original title)
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Credited cast:
Aleksandr Kolbyshyov
Anatoliy Kot
Aleksandr Malokanov
Svetlana Zelenkovskaya
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mooning | See All (1) »

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Drama

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Release Date:

25 January 2004 (Netherlands)  »

Also Known As:

Mysterium Occupation  »

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(archival footage)|
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In the second vignette, an old woman is portrayed as sitting in the burning house playing the mouth accordion, seemingly insensitive to fire and heat, though almost burning alive herself. See more »

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transforms traditional archetypes into cultural statement
18 May 2006 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Okupatsye mysteryy is a triptych set in rural Belorussia during the Second World War. It asserts that the Belorussians are a distinct culture and people; and that they have suffered much since the fall of their Early Modern empire. Its focus on the wartime experience refuses the myths, showing that Belorussians were victims of their own Communist partisans -- officially lionized as freedom fighters -- as much as they were of the Germans.

This is a daring assertion to make in Belorussia today, and the film is not popular with Mr. Lukashenko -- its licence from the Ministry of Culture is currently revoked and its principal showings have thus far been in Poland, Russia and the Netherlands.

NB - I have seen the film only once, in a university theatre, and was not taking notes. Apologies for any mistakes.

These messages are brought home through the use of repeated characters in each 'wing' of the triptych. The stories themselves -- "Adam and Eve," "Mother," and (IIRC) "Father" -- show characters who will be familiar to fans of East Slavic literature and film: the young lovers, of whom the boy is sweet and innocent, the girl a supernatural femme fatale; the nurturing mother, whose 'child' is taken from her, and destroys her world in a despairing rage; the semi-abandoned child, who desperately seeks consolation in a father figure whom we, the audience, can only mistrust, given what we've seen and learned already.

The overarching film uses a combined formal / casual frame: bold intertitles, including a brief opening history lesson, are combined with clips of vintage wartime film, but also with an overarching outline subplot, of revellers sledging through the wintry countryside in which the three vignettes take place. The structure provides a political as well as narrative frame, to keep the central message in mind as the three pieces unfold. The revellers do this by singing Belorussian songs and talking of Moscow as a foreign, if familiar place. It's an old trick - the clowns and the tragedians all making the same point - but it works all right.

The first vignette is IMHO the best. It's the most like a short story, with traditional plot twists and tense conversations among a sadistic partisan, the boy soldier he half drafts, half takes hostage, a failed guerrilla whose house the partisan commandeers, and the ex-guerrilla's girlfriend -- a lovely Polish siren with, we are told, a boundless sexual appetite. The warm, dark interior of the log cabin contrasts nicely with the snowy outdoors.

The second story uses rather a few gimmicks. The mother, practically a babushka already, is a mute, and couldn't talk to the German soldier she rescues even if he knew Belorussian. My, could this be an allegory? There are some nice intense images of her nursing him with her own milk, and also at the bitter end, but the presentation seems heavy-handed. Perhaps this is cultural - fans of old Soviet cinema probably won't mind.

The third piece is All Right, with good acting from the children. The plot is predictable, though, and after the intrigue of the first 'wing' and violence of the second it falls a bit flat, even with its disastrous and tragic ending.

Overall the film's convictions seem predictably bleak: the strong, rich and clever will always take advantage of the weak, poor and stupid. Survival itself is a matter of luck, which some have and some don't. We are to celebrate tragic heroes, but there is no external reason to do, or not do, anything.

If you wanted to view it as an existentialist, you could see this as a desperate claim to freedom in a meaningless world. All right: but there is little joy in this mysteryy, and it is usually born of cruel illusion. If the intended audience is internal it will probably make perfect sense. If it is foreign, the result is contradictory and perplexing.

The fact that we are shown the characters' most intense and intimate moments suggests that we should care about them and, by extension, the people and nation they represent. There is a problem, though. The characters are not personalities: they are types, sometimes embodying their roles naturally, sometimes discovering them -- to their chagrin -- as the stories unfold. (This also is an aspect of classic Soviet cinema.) Are we to assume, then, that the Belorussians themselves will always be victims? Maybe all you need to do to protect your identity is to claim to have one; but without a historic direction, without any ambition per se, it seems very hard to motivate outsiders to help, if that is what the film as propaganda wants. The film runs the risk of making Belorussia's cultural and historical misfortunes fall into the same paradigm as its characters': the only way we can resolve the tragedy is to accept it.

Technically the film makes a virtue of necessity, with the weak lighting (on God knows what budget) contributing to a bleak yet dreamlike atmosphere. The forests and narrow, rounded hills, covered in snow, remind one of Appalachia or central Germany. The camera work is partly hand-held and gives a personal, documentary feel. The pace is not overly slow, but some viewers will probably agree that the partisan corporal is so cruel and morally bankrupt that he becomes difficult to watch.

Overall, the film is interesting and unusual fare. It is not particularly good, and for an example of post-Soviet beauty and skill (and for that matter entertainment) I'd recommend the Russian film Vozvrashcheniye, "The Return", instead. But, if you are interested in current anti-establishment propaganda in what is arguably still the Communist bloc, see Okupatsye mysteryy. It is an independent East European dissident piece, and a novel comment on how a people transforms its traditional archetypes and myths into a cultural statement.


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