SIFF 2016 Review: Battle of Sevastopol

For the last six years attending the Seattle International Film Festival, I have had the pleasure of visiting countries all over the world through their films, but there is one country with which I have had very little luck finding exceptional films, and that is Russia.  I have seen some wonderful films from former Soviet states, for instance, the masterpiece 2014 Georgian film Corn Island or the Georgian film of the same year The Village.  The Russian films I had seen were either so glum that one felt like slashing one’s wrists afterwards, or simply the film did not compute humor-wise or otherwise with our own American sensibilities.

Finally, this year at SIFF I have found a Ukrainian/Russian film that I can confidently recommend to American audiences, especially those who like war movies.  That film is Battle of Sevastopol.  It is labelled a “biopic,” which is also not my favorite genre, but it does not play like a biopic but rather like a full-fledged dramatic war movie.

The movie is based on the military career of one of the top military snipers of all time, and the most successful female sniper in history:  Lyudmila Pavlichenko.  Nicknamed Lady Death, this Ukrainian woman had 309 kills to her credit, mostly Germans.  What is almost as surprising as the fact that this amazing sniper was a woman fighting alongside her Red Army comrades is the fact of her ensuing personal friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  Yuliya Peresild is cast in the role of Pavlichenko and is brilliant in her performance.  British actress Joan Blackham is also well-cast as Eleanor Roosevelt, and despite being a Brit, is totally convincing in her role.

The movie appears to follow real life closely, though some poetic license is taken.  For instance, in the film Pavlichenko’s father is a stern military man while in reality he was a factory worker in Kiev.  She also has some romantic involvement with two fellow snipers in the film, but I have no way to know if this was fact or fiction.  The depiction of her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, however, seems historically quite accurate.  When Pavlichenko’s four different battlefield injuries preclude her return to the battlefield, she comes with a Russian entourage to the U.S. in 1942 and ends up touring with Eleanor in order to encourage the U.S. to get involved in the European war against the Nazis.  Later Eleanor visits her in Moscow during the middle of the Cold War effort (1957).

A piece of historic trivia:  Lyudmila Pavlichenko was the first Russian to ever be welcomed by the White House.  Of course, most of the film centers around the horrendous life of soldiers on the battlefield, and her own specialty as a sniper.  The director Mokritskiy successfully intertwines the biography with the horror and drama of war.

Unless you hate war movies, I highly recommend this film.

By Karen Samdahl
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