Striking talents at work in a drama that feels uneven.


Valentin Novopolskij


Regardless of the criticisms that can be levelled at it, this is a film of considerable interest containing much that impresses. The story that it tells is centred on the titular figure, Oleg played by Valentin Novopolskij. He is a young man from Latvia who, burdened by debts, has come to Belgium with papers enabling him to work in a meat plant where he can earn much more than at home. Unfortunately for him, another worker at the plant, also a migrant, being anxious at all costs to preserve his job unjustly blames Oleg for an accident and in so doing brings about Oleg's dismissal. Since Oleg's permit does not cover any other work, he is in serious difficulties and counts himself lucky when he is taken up by a Pole, Andrzej (Dawid Ogrodnik) living locally in Ghent. Getting a room and fresh work in this way seems wonderful until he realises that Andrzej exploits those around him drawing them into criminal acts and failing to pay them for their services as promised. Even worse, it turns out that this Pole is something of a psychopath capable of violence against those who seek to resist his demands, a fate that even awaits Andrzej's girlfriend (Anna Próchniak).


Oleg can be thought of as a study of working class lives and the fact that it was shown in the 2019 Chicago Film Festival alongside Sorry We Missed You encouraged comparisons with the work of Ken Loach. But, while the director Juris Kursietis would appear to share some of Loach's social concerns, his directorial style is quite different. He favours speedy editing that brings a strong sense of energy to this film and makes it clear that he is a distinctive talent worth watching. Equally notable are the two leading actors here. Novopolskij is quietly engaging making Oleg a character whose misfortunes readily arouse our sympathy despite the fact that the script's vagueness about those debts back in Latvia means that we don't quite know as much about him as we would wish. Providing a very effective contrast we have Ogrodnik, previously seen here in 2014 in Powel Pawlikowski's Ida, turning in an electric performance as the volatile Andrzej whose moods veer so dramatically.


This is, of course, very much a contemporary tale yet, even so, the narrative showing the innocent Oleg sucked into an underworld from which escape is difficult is not without distant echoes of that Dickens classic Oliver Twist. When Oleg does briefly get away on a trip to Brussels, it feels like a detour but that segment is effective in its own right and thereafter back in Ghent the entrapment of Oleg is elaborated. There is a certain logic to what now happens, but what had seemed to be a realistic study of the struggles of migrants comes to feel more and more like a thriller. The fact that Oleg is being exploited by a man who is increasingly seen as a psychopath adds to this sense and reduces the value of the piece as a social document of wider general validity.


Furthermore, two other drawbacks also emerge. One stems from the sheer pace of the film which, initially pleasing, eventually makes the film seem overextended because so much ground has been covered even before this work lasting some 108 minutes reaches its half-way point. The other problem lies in the fact that there is a religious overlay to the film. It's there both at the start and at the end as well as recurring at regular intervals in between, this aspect being expressed both in stylised images and through the use of choral music on the soundtrack. This is totally at odds with the tone of the rest of the film and its purpose and meaning never become entirely clear. By the close, Oleg is revealed as a muddled work which consequently leaves one dissatisfied, but in spite of that the skills of Novopolskij, Ogrodnik and Kursietis make it far from negligible.




Cast: Valentin Novopolskij, Dawid Ogrodnik, Anna Próchniak, Adam Szyszkowski, Guna Zarina, Jurijs Djakonovs, Edgars Samitis.


Dir Juris Kursietis, Pro Aija Berzina and Alise Gelze, Screenplay Lïga Celma-Kursiete, Juris Kursietis and Kaspars Odinš, Ph Bogumil Godfrejow, Pro Des Laura Disiere, Ed Matyas Veress, Music Jonas Jurkunas, Costumes Inese Kalva.


Tasse Film/Arizona Productions/Iota Production/Umedia- Mubi.
108 mins. Latvia/Lithuania/Belgium/France. 2019. Rel: 23 March 2021. Available on Mubi. No Cert.