Genocide as the subject of a dramatic film is necessarily problematic. How exactly does a director convey the scale of so many deaths without exploiting them or overwhelming the audience? One effective method, as in films like Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda and Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, is the creation of a singular protagonist for the viewer to identify with. Or, in the case of István Szabó’s Sunshine, the travails of one particular family confronted with historical forces beyond their control.
By telling the story of Stalin’s death-by-starvation program, which killed millions of Ukrainians, director George Mendeluk’s intentions are as high-minded as those of the other filmmakers. He wants to make sure that Ukrainian history is not forgotten. This is admirable in the work of a documentarian, but less so in the art of fictional narratives, as instead of recognizable human conversations, the script is replete with lessons and platitudes like, “We must continue the resistance!”
Bitter Harvest is also lit like a Pre-Raphaelite painting that exudes an atmosphere of unreal gloss and innocence. As yet another distancing technique, coupled with the rushed pacing and the ill-fitting costumes, it lends an artificiality to every scene. When Terence Stamp arrives wearing a black fur Cossack hat, all bets of believability stampede off screen, on the unruly horse he rode in on.
The film is rated R. Opens Friday at the Sundance Kabuki.