DIRECTED BY: Sergei Loznitsa
FEATURING: Viktor Nemets
PLOT: A Russian truck driver veers off the main highway and into a hinterland of institutionalized
corruption and disjointed narrative.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: My Joy is serious, slow, bleak, oblique, and political; put together, all these adjectives coalesce into “important” in the mind of the average film critic or festival programmer. They do not, however, add up to “entertaining” in the eyes of the average viewer. Add to this the fact that the adjective we are most interested in—“weird”—is present in the film only at trace levels, and My Joy is more of interest to cineastes who make it a point to see important films, as well as to those with a special interest in the sociopolitical situation inside modern day Russia, than it is to pure weirdophiles.
COMMENTS: My Joy‘s confusing journey into the Russian heart of darkness makes more sense after a second viewing, although thanks to plentiful narrative elisions there are still many mysteries that are never resolved. After an unexplained funereal opening, the story proper begins when long haul Russian truck driver Georgy slips away from a couple of crooked checkpoint cops as they are distracted by a more attractive detainee. In a brutal flashback to the days of the post liberation of Berlin Red Army, an aged hitchhiker tells him a story of how military bullies stole his suitcase, his wife, and even his name. (It’s not the last time the film will travel back in time to that particular era; this bitter nostalgia suggests both that the current Russian situation resembles those anarchic times and, more fatalistically, that graft and thievery are the way business has always been done in this part of the world). A child prostitute then shows Georgy a detour around an accident, and he finds himself lost in the wilderness with his cargo until he meets a group of petty thieves. At this point, about an hour has passed—very slowly, in the Russian style, with lots of long shots of people milling about and cab-level views of the trucker driving along deserted roads between the sparse action. Suddenly, it seems that Georgy (the only decent and honest man in all of Russia, as far as we have seen) disappears from the story, as we find ourselves trapped without warning in another horrific post-WWII flashback, followed by scenes where we follow unknown parties through various vignettes illustrating oppression and abuse of villagers at the hands of civil servants. In this middle stretch of the film, the action switches from story to story Phantom of Liberty style, with the camera suddenly veering off to follow a minor character and see where his story goes. I usually do not give away major spoilers, but this time I will, just so you don’t make the same mistake I did: Georgy survives his ordeal. He reappears in the story, now with a beard and a vacant, devastated expression that makes him almost unrecognizable from the fresh-faced idealist we saw in the beginning. He looks and acts so differently that I assumed he was a totally different character, specifically, a particular spectral presence who hung around the outskirts of one of the episodes but whose face the camera has mysteriously refused to show. The realization that this bearded wanderer is Georgy, devastated by his experience, makes the plot slightly (but only slightly) less random. Sadly for a film with such obviously noble intentions, My Joy only held my interest tenuously through the first hour, and lost it entirely once the narrative went off the tracks at the midpoint. It effectively paints a picture of a corrupt society where everyone is playing an angle and a badge is viewed as a license to steal, beat, and rape one’s social inferiors. It’s a world where not only could the uniformed visitors at your door be murderers, they are almost certainly murderers, and the only question is whether they intend to murder you on this particular day. If all they want from you is for you to sign a paper bearing false witness against a stranger, then count yourself as lucky. Unfortunately, too many of the sequences wind up as inconclusive bores, and the hopeless cynicism and quotidian despair of each succeeding episode quickly becomes wearying and—yes—ultimately boring. The final scene, however, snaps you back to attention as we come full circle, revisiting the traffic cops from the beginning in a scene of ordinary jobbery that escalates to brutal violence; the direction makes it almost unbearably tense. In the end the ironically titled My Joy emerges as a political allegory cheerily suggesting that official abuse of the average Russian by bureaucrats with guns will inevitably lead to a retaliation spilling the blood of innocent and guilty alike. In that sense, My Joy functions a little bit like an artier, more hopeless, post-Soviet version of Joel Shumacher’s Falling Down.
My Joy is a Ukrainian production from a Belorussian director. The action is almost entirely rural in a generic locale, and although the movie is presumably set in Russia, you get the sense that the events depicted here would resonate in many of the countries of the former Soviet Union.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“My Joy has been described as an extended Twilight Zone episode, but while it creates its own eerie, surreal plane, it’s also far more random, filled with vignettes that connect loosely and ambiguously.”–Scott Tobias, Onion A.V. Club