A lifetime of gangster movies may have taught us to anticipate the twists and turns of ‘The Line,’ but the Ukrainian film has a voice all its own.
For much of its storied history, Ukrainian cinema has lived in the shadow of other countries. For decades, the Ukrainian film industry was viewed synonymously with that of the Soviet Union; many of the industry’s most storied filmmakers are regarded in history books as Soviet filmmakers first and Ukrainian nationals second. It’s easy to forget that Ukraine was not granted its independence from Russia until 1991 and, to this day, engages in political and military conflicts to decide what (if any) part of the country remains part of the Russian Federation. The point of this all? If there’s one thing a Ukrainian national is uniquely positioned to discuss, it’s the issue of national borders, an issue which becomes the driving force behind Peter Bebjak‘s delightful Ukrainian gangster film The Line.
Politics can be bad for business. For years, Adam (Tomas Mastalir) and his family have operated a small-but-effective criminal empire running cigarettes and refugees back and forth across the Ukrainian-Slovakian border. Now, however, Slovakia has signed an agreement to join the Schengen Area, a collective of 26 European states that allow free movement between countries for citizens of the region. To make things worse, Adam is also feeling pressure from the region’s powerful drug lord to add narcotics to his list of smuggled goods, with several of his most trusted allies hinting that now is the time to expand their inventory. Oh, and don’t forget to the fact that Adam’s daughter has gotten pregnant at the hands of a local villager, who Adam reluctantly decides to bring into the family business. Now Adam must find a way to keep the peace at home and abroad or lose everything his family has struggled to build.
A cynic might watch The Line and see it as film cobbled together from successful American gangster movies. They’re not wrong! The Line borrows heavily from any number of crime thrillers and television series, mixing together themes and visual cues from The Sopranos, Miller’s Crossing, The Godfather, and plenty more along the way. None of this really diminishes the film’s impact; if anything, The Line proves that taking established generic conventions and adding specific cultural and national elements will always breathe new life into old stories. The untrustworthy lieutenant? The escalation of product? The unreliably corrupt police officer? All present, but all viewed through the lens of Ukrainian history and culture. How often will you watch a movie about organized crime where the main characters are members of their community’s own Romani band? That’s what I thought.
There’s more to The Line than just cultural specificity, however. Director Peter Bebjak manages to find moments of visual humor and poignancy throughout the film that only heightens our connections to the characters. In one scene, Adam gathers his men together to discuss an upcoming shipment, only to pause for a moment as each gangster pauses to light their cigarette; given the number of chain-smoking children present in Adam’s village, The Line might set the record for most cigarette consumed on a per-minute basis. In another memorable shot, Bebjak frames Adam and his wife’s passionate sex through the window of their house, only to pan down to Adam’s mother dispassionately smoking on the ground floor. These little moments are scattered through the film, little stylistic touches that give The Line a sense of rhythm entirely its own.
Also adding to the rich texture of the film are the standout performances by the lead cast. Again, these are characters any fan of American crime films know by heart: the stoic lieutenant; the beleaguered wife; the twice-corrupt police captain. Viewed through the lens of Ukrainian culture, however, each of them take on a new shine. The community they occupy offers no chance for upward mobility or secret riches; at one point, a secondary character delivers a long speech about the factories and jobs that are fleeing the Ukrainian border in advance of the upcoming closure of the Slovakian border. All that Adam and his family can hope to do is maintain or improve incrementally, and The Line populates its cast with weathered faces who are entirely believable as people on the fringes of society. Because of the variation in these stakes, the characters often bounce off each other in unexpected ways, with assumed betrayals and acts of revenge failing to take root.
In the end, The Line serves as a welcome combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, a traditional gangster movie given new life by its Ukrainian backdrop. With strong performances, a vibrant culture, and a surprisingly light-hearted touch, The Line never succumbs to cliche, giving audiences a welcome addition to the ever-growing collection of crime movies that find a unique national voice in the midst of genre tropes. Those curious about the current state of Ukrainian cinema – or those looking to build out a list of top-notch gangster movies in every major country – would do well not to sleep on Bebjak’s film.