Review: ‘Bad Roads,’ Ukraine’s Oscar entry, is a grim dispatch from Russian-occupied Donbas region

Two soldiers question a civilian in the movie "Bad Roads."
Vladimir Gurin, left, Andrey Lelyukh and Igor Koltovskyy in the movie “Bad Roads.”
(Film Movement)

The four tales told in “Bad Roads,” Natalya Vorozhbit’s bleak and unnerving first feature, add up to a startlingly grim panorama of life during wartime. We are in the battle-scarred Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, sometime after the spring of 2014, when tensions between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists flared into armed conflict but long before the terrible escalations of the last few months. Like Sergei Loznitsa’s recently rereleased “Donbass,” though less sprawling in scope and more intimate in feel, this omnibus work functions as both a lament and a prophecy. With each story, Vorozhbit pulls us a little deeper into the heart of contested, occupied territory, where soldiers and civilians dwell in unbearable tension, women are grievously exploited and, as the title suggests, wrong turns and ill-advised journeys abound.

The first unlucky traveler we meet is a middle-aged school principal (Igor Koltovskyy) driving through a security checkpoint. It’s a routine trek that quickly goes south when he can’t find his passport; his mild inebriation doesn’t help his case. As he pleads with two armed soldiers (Andrey Lelyukh and Vladimir Gurin), you fear, not for the last time in this movie, that impatience will tilt into aggression and violence. But Vorozhbit has a gift for building tension through narrative restraint and mordant humor; she also has a keen sense of misdirection. What gives the story its moral sting is the moment the principal recognizes — or thinks he recognizes — a young woman in a soldier’s nearby bunker, the latest living casualty of a war without end.

For the record:

2:20 p.m. April 29, 2022An earlier version of this review misspelled director Natalya Vorozhbit’s last name as Volorozhbit.

Does the principal really see what he thinks he sees? “Bad Roads,” which was Ukraine’s 2021 Oscar submission for international feature, suggests the question is irrelevant: Whatever’s happening in this particular instance, it speaks to the long-term trauma of an ongoing military presence and the malevolence that can seep, without warning, into everyday encounters. This first story, which takes place under a hot sun and centers on three men, is both a prologue and a bit of an anomaly: It establishes a theme — the plight of women in wartime — that will be given more unflinching attention in the remaining three vignettes, each of which focuses on a woman’s experience and unfolds under cover of darkness.

A man in military fatigues and two women in the movie "Bad Roads."
Sergei Solovyov, Oksana Voronina and Zoya Baranovskaya in the movie “Bad Roads.”
(Film Movement)

Those stories are all self-enclosed, with conversant themes and beats but no overlapping characters. It’s a structural choice that underscores each character’s sense of isolation, but it also highlights the weird, sometimes terrible intimacy that can take root between strangers. The second story focuses on a trio of teenage girls waiting at a bus stop for their boyfriends, who turn out to be enemy soldiers. We never meet those men but their presence is felt in scraps of gossip that reveal the desperate, transactional nature of relationships in a place where everything — a cigarette, a bag of seeds, a woman’s body — has a price. As nighttime shadows descend, the camera lingers on one of the girls (Anna Zhurakovskaya) as she has a lonely nighttime meeting with her grandmother (Yuliya Matrosova), who begs her to come home with her, invoking memories of happier, less fraught times.

The understated, open-air melancholy of the second story devolves into horrific, claustrophobic violence in the third, which follows a female journalist (Maryna Klimova) as she’s imprisoned and verbally and physically abused by a soldier (Yuri Kulinich) in an underground bunker. The actors’ commitment to this brutal spectacle is remarkable, especially Klimova’s as her character tries, with as much sober determination as she can muster, to appeal to her captor’s long-abandoned sense of decency. But Vorozhbit’s technical virtuosity — the starkness of the production design, the intricate pools of light and shadow at play in her carefully composed frames and the soundtrack’s relentless “Stalker”-esque drip-drip of water — serves only to emphasize the artificiality of this longest and most punishing episode. (It runs about 40 minutes and seems to go on for hours, which is surely by design.)

The two middle stories in particular are marked by a certain staginess, a sense of visual abstraction, that points to the movie’s origins in Vorozhbit’s 2017 play, also titled “Bad Roads.” More convincingly inhabited is the film’s fourth and finest segment, in which a young woman (Zoya Baranovskaya) accidentally runs over a chicken with her car and tries to compensate its owners, a poor older couple (Oksana Voronina and Sergei Solovyov). What begins as an admirable, if naive, act of atonement gradually spirals, in quietly terrifying and mordantly funny fashion, into a waking nightmare as a lifetime of class resentment and economic woe comes writhing to the surface. Impressively restrained in its flirtation with full-bore horror, it’s a reminder that when inhumanity is the everyday norm, there may be few things more futile — or dangerous — than the stirrings of individual conscience.

‘Bad Roads’

In Ukrainian and Russian with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: Starts April 29 via Laemmle Virtual Cinema