‘The Invasion’ Review: Sergei Loznitsa’s Raw but Restrained Reflection on Life During Wartime

The last time Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa made a documentary about contemporary events in his homeland was back in 2014: “Maidan,” a rigorously observational chronicle of the Euromaidan uprising in Kyiv, was both immediate and calmly detached. Eschewing overt narrative shaping or rhetoric for clear-eyed witnessing, it was thoroughly of-the-moment filmmaking that nonetheless felt built to last as a historical document. A comparable approach yields similar rewards in “The Invasion,” Loznitsa’s keenly awaited and patiently assembled response to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. A collection of stoic, straightforwardly shot and cumulatively wrenching vignettes from a country in crisis, doing its best to keep the lights on and hope alive, it acts as an effective sister work to “Maidan” — albeit one that, a decade ago, nobody wished would be made.

A recent Cannes premiere now making the festival rounds, “The Invasion” is hardly first to the topic: This year alone has seen an Oscar win for Mstyslav Chernov’s “20 Days in Mariupol,” while Sundance winner Brendan Bellomo and Slava Leontyev’s “Porcelain War” and Oleh Sentsov’s GoPro battle study “Real” join Loznitsa’s latest in the Karlovy Vary lineup. “The Invasion,” however, doesn’t set out to immerse viewers in the chaos of armed warfare, instead offering a view of everyday life continuing (in frequently compromised, disrupted fashion) through the conflict: weddings, funerals, religious gatherings, school classes, hospital sessions, and so on. Shot over the course of the last two years — not with Loznitsa present, but by multiple small crews around the country — the project resulted in 30 short films of varying lengths, woven by Loznitsa and his co-editor Danielius Kokanauskis into a national tapestry of mourning and resilience.

More from Variety

The film opens on its most solemn note, with an extraordinary 15-minute sequence detailing the formal processions and procedures of a military funeral in Kyiv for a number of men killed in battle. Amid the pomp and ceremony and group prayer, with mourners proceeding to the city’s politically auspicious Independence Square after the service, it’s hard not to focus on the soft, shattered faces of the pallbearers: barely grown men, some of them, reckoning with the value and fragility of their own lives. Loznitsa swiftly counters such devastation with adjacent, jubilant footage of a young soldier’s wedding. Dressed for the occasion in his combat fatigues, their khaki tones setting off the cotton-candy pink of his bride’s rose bouquet, he lifts and twirls her — the future all theirs, at least for a moment. Cut to another, smaller funeral for a 32-year-old soldier, where a priest insists that with “God and good on our side, we shall prevail.”

“The Invasion” is built on such back-and-forth movement between hard-won joy and overwhelming sorrow, with its structural mood swings and repetitions evoking the rhythm of day-to-day survival for Ukrainian citizens. At 145 minutes, economy is not the objective here: Rather, we gain a tense of time either stalling or slipping in these trying circumstances. Elsewhere, we watch village volunteer soldiers on their delivery rounds, deftly alternating between the distribution of essential military and medical supplies and handing out Christmas presents to grateful but reticent kindergarteners. We visit one hospital where recent amputees undergo strenuous physical therapy, and another where, in the maternity ward, a uniformed soldier and his wife gawp over their newborn, their wider anxieties at once suspended and intensified by the new arrival. In a school classroom, pre-teens eagerly sing traditional Cossack victory anthems before an air-raid siren prompts them to relocate to a bunker where class continues as before — even the kids doing so with an unfazed efficiency that smacks of routine.

In the most directly war-related — and grueling — passage, we’re presented with an astonishing aerial view of a recent bomb site, combed over by emergency workers as they seek survivors amid the rubble. Apartment blocks, sliced open by explosions, endure as ghostly reminders of destroyed or vacated communities, while in another shot, a woman picks out usable bricks from what remains of her ruined home, preparing to rebuild. Away from the city, and indeed from the conflict entirely, certain traditions continue unimpeded: A river is a congregation point either for a mass baptism ritual on a chilly day, or for an escapist midsummer swim.

The flow of the seasons gives some form to these disparate scenes, only for the cycle to anticlimactically repeat itself: As the film heads into a second winter at war, spirits sink once more. Free of commentary or narration, as is Loznitsa’s wont, “The Invasion” doesn’t pursue an overriding emotional tenor by its close, volleying instead between fury, compassion, despair and guarded optimism, as it seems many a Ukrainian resident does in the course of any given day. In one of its closing images, a mother and her teenage daughters comfort each other at a memorial wall covered in photos of recently lost soldiers, their expressions caught between anguish and a kind of pride. Just as there is no end in sight yet to this war, Loznitsa’s aptly sprawling, often overwhelming film arrives at no final feeling.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.