As stated in the epilogue to George Mendeluk’s “Bitter Harvest,” seven to 10 million people died in the famine resulting from
Stalin’s ruthless collectivization imposed on Ukraine in the 1930s, a calamity known as the Holodomor. Perhaps not the best backdrop for a trite love story, nor does Mendeluk have quite the epic vision of David Lean in “Doctor Zhivago” (1965). But as the film darkens, it intensifies its focus on tragedy and atrocity and begins to do some justice to one of the largest and least known genocides in history.
As Yuri (Max Irons) relates in an opening voiceover, at one time Ukraine was free and the people worked hard and were happy. It is a world of sunflowers and colorful traditional clothing brilliantly photographed with a paradisal, pastel palette, and Yuri falls in love with childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks). They kiss underwater with the sun shining between them, and when they grow up, they marry.
Then comes the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Ukraine stands independent for a while and is decently treated until Lenin dies. Then the new leader Stalin (Gary Oliver), slurping his way through a decadent banquet, orders all of Ukraine’s farms to be collectivized (i.e., stolen) and the grain sent to the cities to feed factory workers. Sergei (Tamer Hassan, looking like Boris Badenov in “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show”), a sadistic commissar, arrives in Yuri’s village, stealing church gold and icons and randomly shooting and tormenting the starving inhabitants. And he has a leering eye for Natalka.
Yuri, meanwhile, is in Kiev studying to become an artist. He is appalled by the suffering, but how can he fight tyranny with a paintbrush? (He finds a way, in one of the film’s more ingenious scenes.) An outlaw, he joins the resistance, and the film begins to do some justice to the enormity that is its subject.
The palette darkens. The screen fills with dungeons, firing squads, massacres, and flyblown corpses piled high in boxcars. The love story flickers in the background, and for a few moments “Bitter Harvest” reaps some of the horror and evil of one of history’s greatest crimes.
Directed by George Mendeluk. Written by Mendeluk and Richard Bachynsky-Hoover. Starring Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Barry Pepper, Gary Oliver, Tamer Hassan, Terence Stamp. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 103 minutes. R (violence and disturbing images).Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.