By Christopher Bell | The Playlist October 1, 2011 at 2:53AM
After admiring the mixing process of cement, two men heartlessly drop a dead body into the vat. The sun shines, a bulldozer covers the hole, and people get on with their workday. Wait a second, Sergei Loznitsa, you don't really mean that title sincerely, do you?
With a little more than a decade's worth of documentary filmmaking under his belt, this director loaded his camera for his first narrative feature, "My Joy," and aimed it at Russian society, past and present. Young, fresh-faced Georgy (Viktor Nemets) is our tour guide through the country's locale; truck driver by profession and warm-hearted by nature. Various hurdles prevent the man from getting to where he needs to be: bored check-point security officers dilly dally with paper work, gas stations lack the necessary fuel, and an accident up the road leads to heavy delays. Thankfully he's not without company for this trip, as both an elderly wanderer (recounting a story of murder from his WWII days) and a teenage prostitute provide plenty of entertainment for the unlucky cat. The latter even shows him a way around the traffic but quickly ditches him when he extends a kindness that she finds condescending, crudely pointing to her crouch and exclaiming that she'll make money with "this." Stuck in the backroads at a rather volatile village, Georgy struggles to find his way and is eventually struck on the head by vagrants looking to steal his load. Similarly, the film itself goes out of whack as well: scenes taking place during WWII are woven into the present, which leaps ahead to an undisclosed amount of time later with a nearly unrecognizable Georgy, both mute and stricken with amnesia.
But the tales of compassion punished carry on, and the scathing assaults on the country only get more ferocious. No, it's nothing like "A Serbian Film" (and for that matter nothing ever will be), but Loznitsa has a bone to pick and certainly isn't holding back. In one scenario (set in the 1940s), a local takes in two soldiers, providing food and shelter. This widowed father was a former teacher and is eager to return to his profession, eventually becoming so comfortable with his guests that he announces that German occupation wouldn't be so bad -- and maybe even better. The duo are rightfully offended and quickly turn in for the night... when morning comes, they bash the homeowner's skull in and drag the body outside. His son, now an orphan, looks on in utter confusion.
The filmmaker sees no difference between the past and present, touching upon many of the same issues in whatever decade he feels appropriate. One would assume the constantly shifting time period and characters would be jarring, but it's actually very smooth and even liberating at times. By constantly paying attention to multiple scenarios and people (and giving them just the right amount of contemplation), the director constructs his own believable world within the film, one that feels lived in and full of human beings with their own respective stories. Though he casts a critical eye on nearly everybody on camera, his respect for them as people shows through and adds a hefty weight to his commentary.
Instead of chocking his dialogue full of his philosophy on civilization, Loznitsa instead observes actions as opposed to conversation. His camera is always close to his subjects, lingering on their face in an attempt to understand their behavior. This shooting style is supremely confident, getting the most out of a single angle and only cutting to a new one when absolutely necessary. That being said, these aren't Tsai Ming-liang shots, and things move along at a near-perfect pace once the director decides to seek a new target.
While the constantly shifting subjects keep things from becoming repetitive, there is an almost overwhelming pessimism that surrounds the film like a fog, one that nearly becomes opaque after the savagely violent finale. Easy answers to these kind of problems can admittedly be both belittling and empty, but it would've been beneficial to have some sort of positivity in this extremely cold, bleak film. Then again, why mess with a good thing? "My Joy" is an intriguing, manic country portrait from start to finish, structurally erratic and pulsating with gall -- if there's an aftertaste of cynicism, well, that's okay with us. [A]