The bond between friends can remain unbroken forever, and that is exactly what audiences envision at this film's opening. 'Anton' begins with an old and weary man, moving slowly although purposefully through an aged care centre, seemingly looking for his old and loyal companion, the titular Anton. At this point, audiences would be forgiven - nay, expected - to assume that the everlasting bond between these lifelong friends will be central to the film's direction. Alas, you'd be wrong. While the theme of friendship is certainly explored, 'Anton' spends significantly more time focusing on the rebel parties and kindred unity of a rural Ukrainian community at the back end of the Russian revolution.
'Anton' is the last film from renown Academy Award-nominated Georgian director Zaza Urushadze ('Tangerines'), and unfortunately, it's not really one to remember. Set in 1919 in the midst of Trotsky's Bolshevik military regime, this area of Ukraine is populated by German families who work the land, hoping to make a better life for themselves. Limited knowledge of this period of Russian history is required, as much of the background is fed to audiences through exposition. However, one thing that remains clear is that these families fear for their livelihood from the hands of the "red bitch", Dora (Tetiana Grachik). Despite the chaos and horror caused by Dora's army to the community, Anton (Nikita Shlanchak) and his best friend Yakiv (Mykyta Dziad) try to remain inseparable in a world increasingly separated through prejudice and cruelty.
While the friendship between the Jewish Yakiv and the German Catholic Anton is sweet and endearing, not only does it not become central to the plot, but it barely maintains the heart that Urushadze clearly wants to focus his film around. Revenge plots, gun smuggling and rebel parties are what dominate the run time of this film, and although they are interesting stories in of them, they are let down by the lack of focus throughout the film. This is an extremely interesting historical period in Ukraine, but you get the sense that Urushadze is held back by wanting to keep this film a bit more lighthearted. I wouldn't go as far to say it is family-friendly, but it is tonally confused. Sometimes it is comfortable being an overly dramatised story that would not be out of place had it been released in the 90s, and other times it wants to be a gritty political commentary. Neither are uninteresting, but both don't go together.
Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps the tonal shifts are a reflection of a small community that are war-torn and desperate for salvation, all seen through the eyes of a child. And I would concede that it might work, were it not for the shallow and undeveloped characters. The boys themselves are given nothing to work with, and for supposedly pivotal characters who are central to the themes of the film, they might not have more than 4 pages of dialogue between them. The adults that dictate their everyday, notably Yakiv's father Josef (Vladimir Levitskiy) and Anton's mother Christina (Natalia Ryumina, 'Their Finest'), are fine in terms of bringing the much-needed drama to the fold, but they are not much more than fine - which is emblematic of the film in general.
Revenge plots, gun smuggling and rebel parties are what dominate the run time of this film, and although they are interesting stories in all of them, they are let down by the lack of focus throughout the film.
Father Fridrikh (Sebastyan Anton) is the town priest, who by far has the most interesting storyline. Unfortunately, it proves to be more of a puzzle with few answers. He is the one who leads the rebellions and has the personal vendetta against Trotsky, but unless I missed it, audiences will never know why. It means that there is no "hero's journey" or attractive arc to his character, leaving audiences simply unable to invest.
Aesthetically speaking, 'Anton' is actually a very beautiful film. Shot on location in Ukraine and using old buildings in the surround, Urushadze clearly knows what he is doing when it comes to pretty pictures. The sets and costumes look authentic for a period piece, creating a natural feel to the film that should be applauded, which all work in tandem with the bright sunshine he manages captures on film. The camera follows the characters with a peering eye and some interesting points of view, which try to aide the desired melancholic atmosphere of the film.
This is not a boring film by any stretch - rather, it's just confused by what it wants to say and who its target audience should be. It's harmless and sweet in a way that should encourage children to watch it, but simultaneously lacks the heart and focus to make it more memorable. I found myself clock-watching at times through its two-hour runtime, but ultimately, 'Anton' is inoffensive and just fine.