The Cannes Film Festival is famous for its standing ovations, dutifully clocked by hype-makers eager to measure the adulation that follows the unveiling of a new cinematic masterpiece. But when the audience rose to their feet before the premiere of Mariupolis 2 on Thursday, it was to honor something more important than the presence of a welcome movie star: the life of the film’s late director, Mantas Kvedaravičius, who was killed by Russian soldiers while shooting his documentary in April. A few days after the city itself fell to invading Russian forces, Kvedaravičius’ fiancée Hanna Bilobrova fought back tears as she introduced the film, which she completed after smuggling the footage out of the country. The result is a ragged, inevitably imperfect movie whose unfinished qualities—the film was added as special screening at the last minute, because it wasn’t clear it would even be ready to show in time—convey both the disruptions of war and the tragically truncated nature of the film’s own creation.
Cannes was already awash in antiwar sentiment before Mariupolis 2, setting aside the celebratory flyover by the French Air Force that greeted the arrival of Tom Cruise (back for the first time in 30 years) and the premiere of Top Gun: Maverick. The opening night ceremony was capped by a video appearance by Volodymyr Zelensky—incongruously following a singalong led by a French balladeer—who pointed out to the swankily attired audience that cinema has a long history of both attacking dictators and abetting them. “Hundreds of people die every day,” the Ukrainian president, and former TV star, said. “They are not going to get up after the end. Will cinema stay silent, or will it talk about it?” The next day, the Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov grabbed a microphone after the premiere of his movie Tchaikvoksky’s Wife to issue a statement to the crowd: “Non à la guerre.”
[Read: Ukraine’s Greatest Living Filmmaker Explains What the Images Online Aren’t Showing.]
In Mariupolis 2, the hostilities mostly remain at a distance, although the sound of explosions often seems to make the camera physically shake, and once a piece of hot shrapnel lands close enough to touch. But the evidence of devastation is everywhere in the bombed and burned buildings, the heaps of trash bags that litter the street, and the scrambling for survival of residents now rendered refugees in their own home. Kvedaravičius’ camera is often crammed into a corner of a church basement where people whose houses have been destroyed are taking refuge, filming from a distance. (Kvedaravičius trained as an anthropologist, and his 2016 movie Mariupolis was a more expansive portrait of a society’s response to war.) There is no time or space to carve out narrative arcs or identify characters beyond a few recurring figures, never seen in close-up and often speaking unsubtitled for significant stretches.
We watch them sweep paths free of dust and rubble, a poignant, even tragicomic attempt to restore a tiny slice of order in a world that is literally falling apart. We see them gathering scraps of wood, some taken from former houses, to boil a pot of water for food. As one man is running with scraps, he trips on a step that splinters beneath his foot; after barely a moment’s hesitation, he pulls the ragged pieces of step loose and tosses them too on the fire. Two men drag a harvested generator through the ruins for what feels like hours, both because of the duration of the shots and because we’re acutely aware of how exposed they are at every instant. Many of these sequences go on longer than they need to in strictly narrative terms (one instant reaction dubbed the movie “a collection of B-roll”), but the duration conveys both the constant struggle for survival and the sheer, grinding boredom of life under these circumstances. Most everything that could provide a moment of respite has been stripped away or blown to shreds. One man, showing off what remains of the house where he once bred and stored birds, pulls the bright, limp bodies of two parakeets from underneath a pile of stones, and points to the handful of pigeons that still roost in the remains of an attic where once there were hundreds.
Despite the ease with which anti-war sentiment at Cannes has been condensed into the ubiquitous “PUTIN” buttons, Mariupolis 2 is more despairing than it is narrowly political. One man stands in a doorway and runs down a list of the country’s openly corrupt and disappointing leaders, up to but not including Zelenskyy, and concludes that their fate is simply in the hands of “morons.” If there’s hope for a future here, it’s not in institutions—not the government nor the church that eventually turns the people huddled in its basement out into the street (the movie leaving their prayers unsubtitled feels like a deliberate critique)—but in the way the individuals endure and care for each other, throwing soup ingredients into the pot and unwilling to chase away even a dog that has gotten into their food stores. The best they can do is survive, and when even that fails, leave something behind for others to mourn.