The Holodomor, the historic event at the center of "Bitter Harvest," is a devastating chapter in the chronicles of a long-embattled Ukraine and now widely regarded as an act of genocide by the Soviet regime. Targeted by famine-inducing policies engineered in Stalin's Kremlin, millions died of starvation. Given the scope of the early-1930s atrocity, the most shocking thing about director George Mendeluk's new dramatization is how utterly devoid of emotional impact it is.
Shooting in Ukraine, the filmmaker achieves a physical authenticity and offers intriguing glimpses of local customs, but the story that he and his ill-served cast enact is an unwieldy excess of incident and cliché. The screenplay, credited to Richard Bachynsky-Hoover and Mendeluk, hits nearly every note with such deadening lack of nuance that, with the exception of a few strong moments delivered by Barry Pepper and especially Terence Stamp, there's no room for audience involvement in the torments and travails of a village.
The first signal of trouble is the lengthy, scene-setting voiceover — an obvious attempt to fill in what the drama can't supply. But the narration proves preferable to the film's awkward stops in Moscow for exposition. There, Stalin (Gary Oliver) plots his punishment on the independence-seeking region of Ukraine, whose rich natural resources the government needs, as we learn from lines of dialogue that sound like snippets from Wikipedia.
A bland Max Irons (son of Sinead Cusack and Jeremy Irons) stars as Yuri, who apparently hasn't inherited the fearless soldierly temperament of his father (Pepper) and legendary grandfather, played by Stamp (the actor suffered serious equestrian-related injuries during production). The film makes much of Yuri's artistic talent, unconvincingly, as it stirs up the romance between him and his childhood sweetheart, Natalka (Samantha Barks), who stays behind when he follows his political activist friends to Kiev.
Yuri's art academy studies offer a heavy-handed but nonetheless instructive capsule depiction of some of the wide-ranging effects of Moscow's tightening screws: The teacher who's an enthusiast of European modernism will be disappeared and replaced by one spouting an edict for socialist realism.
While Yuri faces the government clampdown in the big city, his hometown is ravaged. In the name of collectivization, the state strips farmers of their land and other property and confiscates most of their harvest, forcing many to kill their horses for meat. The Bolshevik commissar (Tamer Hassan) who's stationed in the village might as well be named Boris Badenov; the less said about his psycho-sexual afflictions the better.
Mendeluk, whose experience has been predominantly in television, drives home the horror with such hamfisted metaphors as a blood-spattered loaf of bread. He does better with straightforward sequences like a simply staged funeral scene, the unfamiliar ritual set against a traditional song by the folk group Rozhanitsa, providing a stirring break from the schmaltzy cues of the score.
During the rare moments when the film escapes its melodramatic trappings, its specific horrors draw matter-of-fact connections to a wider sense of history, as when Yuri enters a boxcar filled with corpses, or when Natalka dabs her own blood on her lips. In the latter case, her peasant lipstick is part of a bid to prostitute herself for the sake of her starving family, and Stamp's reaction as her concerned in-law puts more emotional power in a single, pained word — her name — than the rest of the movie's dialogue combined.
However ungainly it is, the story of Yuri's redemption does, at least, shed light on the Holodomor. Whether more affecting accounts follow, time will tell. Whether we learn from history's brutal lessons remains an open, urgent question.
Rating: R, for violence and disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Ahrya Fine Arts Theater, Beverly Hills; AMC Burbank Town Center 8, Burbank; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica