A man drags a body through snow, then dumps mud over it. We see a close-up of a shovel truck’s mouth churning forward. Another man exits his car to show his documents to a border cop, while in front of them another cop demands a woman bend over so he can ogle her ass.
These are some of the early images in My Joy, former documentarian Sergei Loznitsa’s debut fiction feature. Its protagonist is a trucker making a sort of pilgrim’s progress through Russia, accompanied by a revolving motley crew of good and bad country people. The film unfolds as a sequence of episodic bits in which the Soviet state is attacked, in ways both tragic (an old man tells how Stalinist officers forever separated him from his bride) and comic (the trucker walks up to a gas station, sees a sign that says “No petrol,” asks for diesel, and sees another sign that says, “No diesel”).
The handheld camera often sticks close to the back of the trucker’s neck. Cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who shot the great Romanian journey-through-medical establishment-hell drama The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, stays tight and close to people, as though doing so might reveal documentary truths.
The film is willing to—and very often does—shoot off into tangents to reveal these truths. The trucker quickly becomes a pretense for the movie, rather than its focus, as Loznitsa abandons him for long stretches in order to follow underage whores down a highway as they patrol for clients, or soldiers dragging a farmer off so that they can shoot him and ransack his house. The film eventually gives its leading man up altogether, and ends with a horrific massacre (captured in one tremendous long take) of people we’ve barely just met.
Many of these segments are powerful, but they don’t do much to enrich each other. It’s useful to think of some of the best pan-societal critiques from the past decade, dazzling films like Code Unknown, The Circle, and even Lazarescu, in which we roam across a culture with a small group of recurring characters. Each sequence in these films illustrates a point about a central theme (respectively, a society’s treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, of women, and of the sick). By contrast, Loznitsa’s film seems to be trying to attack everyone and everything it can look at, which proves too much for one movie. If the aforementioned films are arguments, then My Joy is a list. Loznitsa’s documentaries are mainly compilations of archival footage, so it makes sense that his first fiction film is also essentially a compilation, an array of dynamic, aggressive bits rather than one coherent text.
If the film does have a central point or message, though, it likely has to do with a deep distrust of the Soviet government, and perhaps of all governments (Loznitsa reportedly believes that 9/11 was an inside job). But the film’s world may also be beyond salvation. One character tells another, “Your store is burning. It needs rebuilding. Then again, the fuck with it.”