“The Oath of Pamfir”, mythological drama on the borders of Europe

The Oath of Pamfir ***

by Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk

Ukrainian film, 2 h 02

Pamfir is a colossus. A force of nature who barely knows how to read but capable of defeating any adversary in the fight. From his real name Leonid, nicknamed Pamfir in homage to a stove-maker grandfather and a great fighter, his reputation is second to none in this village located in a region on the borders of Ukraine and Romania where traditions remain extremely lively. Returning after long months spent in Poland, to provide for his family, he reunites with his wife Olena and his son Naza, while Malanka is being prepared, a traditional carnival ritually marking the beginning of the year.

A joyful and warm reunion quickly overshadowed by an arson attack involving Naza, a sulky and rebellious teenager disturbed by the prolonged absence of his father. Determined to stifle the case, Pamfir undertakes to repair the damage but must, to find the money, plunge back into a troubled past which his wife has sworn to him to give up.

However, since his departure, the reasons for which the film will gradually reveal, things have changed in the village. And Pamfir, despite his courage and his legendary power, will come up against the power of Mr. Orestes, a corrupt forest ranger who has placed the locality under controlled cutting and got his hands on local traffic. Ignoring the latter’s attempts at intimidation and the warnings of his entourage, Pamfir will try one last gamble, at the risk of losing everything.

The film re-enacts the biblical myth of Abraham

For his first fiction feature, discovered at Cannes during the Directors’ Fortnight, Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk weaves an astonishing film, at the crossroads of genres, which fascinates with its dramatic breadth and formal beauty. Combining thrillers with ancient tragedy, he replays, he explains, the biblical myth of Abraham by situating him in this hinterland that is the border areas of central Europe. Located at the gates of the European Union and its prosperity, a mixture of cultures and religious syncretism, they constitute a sort of blind spot on the continent where, as in the recent film by Cristian Mungiu NMRstrength and primary instincts most often take precedence over law and morality.

From the war in Donbass (the film was shot before the Russian invasion) we will only hear distant echoes. Hundreds of kilometers from the capital, kyiv, business is settled man to man. And the criminal chaos that followed the independence of this former Soviet republic was succeeded by an order imposed by corrupt officials. The contraband traffic with Romania, the only means of existence for those who have not emigrated, thus serves as a backdrop to the story. It is the site of a battle for power between border guards and local potentates in which Pamfir, driven by necessity, will find himself trapped.

A succession of sequence shots with polished composition

The fatal spiral set in motion by the screenplay against a background of ancestral customs, according to which men decked out in frightening masks compete to determine the strongest among them, gives the film its mythological dimension. It imposes itself from the strange opening scene, which sets the tone for what follows. A succession of sequence shots with extremely elaborate composition and aesthetics, whose color palette is reminiscent of that of a certain Asian cinema. The filmmaker himself evokes Caravaggio and Bruegel the Elder to justify the symbolism and the chiaroscuros of a drama of universal significance.

A somewhat emphatic formalism but which never takes precedence over this very beautiful story of love and filial transmission. With his physique and his Cossack mustaches, Pamfir (played masterfully by actor Oleksandr Yatsentyuk) obeys his protective instinct and, decked out in his carnival clothes, almost turns into an animal to both sacrifice and save his son, in hope for a better future on the other side of the border.


A Ukrainian filmmaker who films the conflict

Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk was born in 1983 in Uman (Ukraine).

He graduated from Kyiv National University in theatre, film and television.

After two short films, he realizes in 2013 Krasna Malankaa documentary on the Krasna carnival in the Chernivtsi region (western Ukraine), where he is from.

In 2018, his short film Weightlifter receives the prize for best short film at the Premiers Plans festival in Angers.

His first fiction feature film, Pamfir, supported in particular by the Cinéfondation de Cannes, is selected in 2022 for the Directors’ Fortnight.

Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the filmmaker has taken to the camera to document the war and is preparing a film about how the conflict is changing his country

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