Film Review: Bitter Harvest

An earnest effort at recounting Stalin’s genocide of Ukrainians that is ultimately a soap opera and interchangeable with any number of horror-filled war films.
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The genocidal murder of Ukrainians is a little-known chapter in 20th-century atrocities. In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin and his sadistic henchmen killed millions of Ukrainians mostly through mass starvation, a horror known as the “Holodomor.” The brutality was relentless and not acknowledged by the world at large until 2003, when 28 countries signed a resolution recognizing and condemning it as genocide.

It’s certainly a story worth telling and one that has resonance today in light of the ongoing battles between Ukraine and Russia. One can’t help suspecting the creative team behind Bitter Harvest—most of whom have Ukrainian roots—saw the timely parallels.

If only this film—co-written and directed by George Mendeluk—were a documentary. Clearly, there are good ones and others that are not so good. Still, a documentary might have had a shot at authenticity, whereas a fictionalized account like Bitter Harvest is not only a trivialization, it’s awash in clichés and predictability.

Serving as a backdrop to family dramas, romances, personal triumphs and failures, the actual history (ostensibly the reason for the picture to have been made to begin with) is largely subsumed in a plot that could be plucked from virtually any film dealing with wartime horrors.

The nonstop, pulsating musical score varying only slightly with the emotional context—there’s love, there’s suspense, there’s violence—doesn’t help. Neither does the director’s attempt at creating atmosphere with blinding snowstorms and gory torture scenes juxtaposed with happy farmers clad in traditional costumes folk-dancing the night away.

Here’s the story: As Stalin’s troops charge across the Ukrainian country seizing property, destroying religious iconography, murdering anyone who shows resistance to Communist ideals, a young artist named Yuri (Max Irons) is torn from his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks) when, after much agonizing, he joins his friends in Kiev.

There he studies painting (and is told his work fails the social-realism test and does not reflect the kind of Soviet optimism one would hope to see), is swept up in an underground anti-Communist movement, arrested and jailed. He finally escapes prison through a familiar ruse that entails killing a guard and wearing his clothes. It’s identity theft, ’30s-style.

Galvanized with revolutionary fervor, Yuri returns to the Ukraine to save his girlfriend and along the way adopts an orphaned boy with whom he hops trains stacked high with corpses and hides in forests where Stalin’s soldiers abruptly emerge en masse and/or lurk behind every tree.

And then there’s the casting. Nobody in a leading role looks remotely Slavic. Not Irons, nor Terence Stamp as Yuri’s grandfather, nor Barry Pepper as his father, though the latter sports a huge mustache and an unintentionally hilarious forelock. Is that Slavic? Accents and dialects are all over the map.

However, the actors playing our heroes have mastered poetic, yearning expressions, while those tackling the Soviet villains—including Tamer Hassan as a Soviet commissar and Gary Oliver as Stalin—bear a striking resemblance to enraged bull mastiffs. Nuance is not the film’s strong suit.

Still, within limited parameters it presents a history lesson that for many viewers might be otherwise unknown. Arguably that alone makes it valid. It could surely serve as a springboard for more serious discussion of 20th-century totalitarian history in a high-school classroom, say.

Regrettably, Bitter Harvest could also be employed in film school as an object lesson in what a movie purporting to narrate and commemorate a historical event shouldn’t be.

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