“The Secret Diary of Simon Petlyura” is nearly the first feature film about the former Chief Otaman of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. It’s also the first director’s work of Oles (Oleksandr) Yanchuk after he had been appointed as a director of the studio named after Dovzhenko in 2014. Shot, accordingly, there.
“The Diary” is a costume biography with abundant flashbacks. The main plot – the last days of Petlyura in May 1926 before the murder and the trial after the assassination. Otaman reflects upon the events of the war for independence in 1917-21. Except for the military episodes, there’s a political intrigue and a lyrical line – relationship with the wife Olha and daughter Lesia.
The main problem of all biopics is in their ambivalent objects. Any famous person from the past isn’t just a particular person, but also the product of communal imagination, the twist of absolutely different vectors; for somebody, he’s nearly an angel from the heavens, for somebody – all evil. Especially it concerns the figures of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Petlyura is the most prominent in this pantheon of tragic figures.
Apparently, the director’s intention was to show this tragedy, that’s clear from the title. “Secret diary” is frankness, doubt, confession, recognition of one’s fault. Textually all this is present here.
The problem is that Yanchuk downplays the tragedy to the melodrama, what is seen from the protagonist. Serhiy Frolov plays Petlyura – a talented actor. However, from the very beginning he has the same frozen facial expression, despite the circumstances: let it be 1918 year according to the plot or 1926 or he writes his secret diary or sits in the Parisian restaurant or leads the army on the battle or speaks with family. It seems that the reason is that the author didn’t make up his mind who is the protagonist: victim of historical events, a hero of liberation competitions or so-called Ukrainian Hamlet. He could be everything but he needs changes in the character and there’re no such changes.
Nonetheless, in Frolov you can feel the experience. With the rest of the actors, it’s worse. Yevgen Nyschuk (Vynnychenko), Bogdan Benyuk (Hrushevsky), Irma Vitovska (Olga Petliura) in their parts they predominantly rely on theatrical stamps of imitation and gestures but not on cinematographic ones and it looks pretty fake or in the worse sense – pathetic.
In general, all this time the impression that you see the front of the film but not the film itself holds you tight, the feeling that you see the cinematographic layout, hurriedly built up in the workshop, but not the reality itself, suppresses you. Battle scenes are so unconvincing that the question occurs – were they really shot in the Dovzhenko studio, where old tradition of military scenes has been preserved. The depiction of Paris remains carton and flat – somewhere it was seen with a naked eye that everything was built and illuminated in the pavilion.
I want to highlight: I don’t analyze the historical credibility of “Diary” but its feature side. The last one suffers from the uncertain author’s attitude towards the protagonist. There’s hence chaos in the plot structure: several lines are simply abrupted, aren’t finished (for example, Lesya Petlyura and her affair with an unnamed young man, relationship of Petlyura and Bolbochan, the attitude of the Directorium conductor towards the captives). It seems that Yanchuk, working on the huge amount of information at one particular moment lost control on it. Sometimes it leads to badly ambiguous moments as it was in the scene of the trial of Petlyura’s murderer Samuel Schwartzbard, when prosecution witnesses dissecting the reasons of pogrom in Proskuriv, say something about Jews, who provoked the soldiers of the UPR into pogrom – whether it was intended or not, but it seems like a typical antisemitic argumentation with division of Jews into bad and “useful”, what, together with the screen Petlyura about the “burden of millennial curse”, leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Yanchuk knuckled down to the topic both important and hard – and didn’t cope. After all, talking about Ukraine means talking about the whole epoque, about the whole Ukraine of those times. The task isn’t the easy one and it requires extraordinary individual talent and high level of national cinema school. Is there a fault in Ukrainian cinema that it’s not ready to accept such a challenge after the decades of prohibitions and then economic decay?
New films about Petyura, Bandera about all those who fought for Ukraine in a way they saw it, will be necessarily releasing. The main thing that ideology in these projects doesn’t have to prevail over the artistic efforts.
The epigraph from William Faulkner before the film says: “The past is never dead. It even didn’t elapse.” The trouble is that the past is too alive for us.
Dmytro Desyateryk, “Day” – specially for Оpinionua.com