Oleg review – migrant drama of despair leaves no way out | Film


Here is the second feature from Juris Kursietis, a Latvian film-maker working in a toughly questioning European social-realist style. Valentin Novopolskij plays Oleg, a young migrant worker from Riga working in a meat processing plant in Ghent, Belgium. A grisly accident means that he is danger of losing the job and getting deported, but poor, biddable Oleg falls under the sway of a sinister Polish gangmaster called Andrzej, who genially offers to get him a fake Polish passport and fix him up with cash-in-hand building work with all the other eastern European illegals . They are all living together, drinking and playing Fifa in a house that they are supposed to be remodelling – but the mercurial and voluble Andrzej is in fact terrorising them like an abusive stepfather and using them in violent crime. Andrzej is played by Dawid Ogrodnik, whom I last saw as the sax-playing hitchhiker in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida.

This is a bleakly uncompromising film, shot in a handheld manner, the camera shakily following Oleg closely around in the streets, the building sites and the various chaotic and squalid interiors. But it’s leavened with a kind of black comedy: Oleg ends up having sex with a young woman during a somewhat unlikely interlude, by conning his way into a private party and pretending to be an actor, and the realism is interspersed with dream-like and religiose sequences.

Interestingly, movies like this about the marginal, the exploited and the dispossessed usually have a young woman at their heart rather than a man, and this shows how there is a very masculine sort of humiliation and despair in Oleg’s heart. He has a connection with Andrzej’s abused girlfriend, Malgosia (Anna Próchniak), and it is easy to see how Oleg’s life is playing out in a kind of gender-switch parallel to hers. I’m not sure I quite believed the way in which this story is played out, but there is an abrasive energy to it.

Oleg is released on 23 March on Mubi.

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