'The Flood Won't Come' Is A Challengingly Distorted Image Of The Pitiless Purgatory Of War [Transilvania Review]

Replete with peculiar ideas about the nightmare of modern conflict, especially in bleakly undefined, but vaguely former-Soviet territories, Armenian director Marat Sargsyan’s debut, which started its life in Venice Critics’ Week and just picked up a Special Mention in the Transilvania International Film Festival Competition, is a strange and not wholly successful mixture of confounding and compelling. But thanks to some truly original, very striking imagery and the vague sense that Sargsyan knows what he’s getting at, even if you don’t, if you’re willing to commit resources to the tense ground war between frustration and revelation, the latter just about wins out. 

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For one thing, the film’s genuinely magnificent opening tides you through the early longueurs: through an eerily unreal icy landscape, with the ridges of far-off mountain ranges sticking up like dinosaur bones, the camera picks its way through craggy glacial formations. It looks like ice, but somehow arid, perhaps it’s white ash – Pompeii after Vesuvius or Hiroshima after Little Boy. But where we’re used to drone camera imagery being smooth, floaty and airless, the progress here is unsteady, ragged at the edges, stumbling slightly. It gives a vague sense of being in a first-person shooter – an impression heightened when we get to journey’s end: a small pagoda-like building where a Japanese man practicing calligraphy looks up at us directly and speaks his enigmatic riddle, just like a non-player character in a cutscene. “We knew we had lost the war, and so did they,” he intones dolorously, “But they dropped the bomb anyway.” Hey, at least you know to check your expectations of cheerfulness on the way in. 

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Suddenly it is a gray village somewhere in the muddy countryside, and we’re sitting facing out the back of a troop transport – still in first-person perspective, so the movement is a perpetual reverse and the hollow, “Come and See” eyes of other soldiers meet ours with blank hostility. Every now and then, Sargsyan will break up his flow with one of these long, meandering takes (featuring bravura camerawork from Feliksas Abrukauskas), but the returns tend to diminish over time: it is established early that “The Flood Won’t Come” is not only about the war-as-hell, but war-as-tedium too. 

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Loosely speaking, right into the surprising coda that shifts setting and scenario entirely and deposits him in a new place, we are following an unnamed Colonel (Valentinas Masalskis) taking orders from unseen commanders in a nowhere town that has been repurposed as a temporary army base in this intractable, absurd war. Though the Colonel still goes on brutal raids with his men (a particularly effective early raid culminates in a shreddingly tense “Sophie’s Choice” situation which suggests that Sargsyan has it in him to make a much more straightforwardly gripping drama if he should so choose), his war-weariness is evident in every interaction, in the slump of his shoulders, in the desolation and isolation of his life among the callow new recruits with their smartphones and sexual innuendos. His most intimate conversations are with his opposite number from the enemy side: one such secret encounter, shot entirely in ghostly night vision, is already among the film’s most memorable sequences, even before a very magnificent, semi-mystical elk shows up. 

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Aside from disciplining his men, distributing threadbare rations and patrolling the local environs, the Colonel’s chief area of responsibility is guarding the prisoners he has taken, who are being kept in a lightless, straw-strewn underground bunker. Amongst themselves, amid all the privations, the prisoners, who include an erstwhile academic, have philosophical conversations about the existence of God, which Sargsyan dubiously attempts to elevate to the level of religious allegory with some tiresomely on-the-nose imagery, at one point arranging them into The Last Supper, and literalizing the parallel for the cheap seats when a shaft of light seems to illuminate the tableau from above (please can we stop with The Last Supper? Thanks!). Later one of the prisoners will be subjected to Christlike punishments. Later still, the Colonel, whose personal crusade is to stop the bodies of his fallen soldiers being harvested for organs, will experience resurrection and baptism into a new life, in which wounds can be washed away and the sins of his past play as stories on the news during a boisterous family dinner. 

Little of this adds up, but certain sequences make for arresting, knotty provocation, especially around the vaguely outlined idea that this type of utter desolation is what happens when war – which is by nature meant to adhere to certain codes of honor – outlives honor itself. What does war look like when no one can remember why they fight when the conflict becomes an end in itself? What does it do to your psyche when the enemies whom you are supposed to be willing to die in order to kill are far more similar to you than are your distant superiors, giving orders based on incomprehensible and irrelevant far-off politics? In Sargsyan’s despairing vision, this kind of war looks like mud and cadavers, like bestiality and insanity, like the Major who has sex with sheep in a barn or like the soldier who collects the dum-dum bullets from dead bodies, observing how the metal blossoms into different flower shapes depending which part of the body it hits: bone, flesh, head, heart. It’s hard to state for sure what “The Flood Won’t Come” means, perhaps because it imagines this kind of modern warfare as a state beyond meaning, beyond comprehension, defying all logic, where all we can look for are the last glimmers of humanity, however, corrupted, before the lights go out. [B-]