|Irons and Barks in Bitter Harvest|
“An Ever Present Reminder”
A Review of Bitter Harvest by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, Three Reels
The history of “Fatima’s century” is marked with blood, most famously the Holocaust where six million Jews were systematically murdered in an attempt to stamp out their race. This was not the first and certainly not the last in that era. Bitter Harvest is a fictional tale that documents the Holodomor, where Soviet authorities created an artificial famine that killed at least three million Ukrainians in just over a year yet is virtually unknown in the West except by those who fled its horror. In the United States, we often define poverty in terms of unemployment or lack of social mobility, yet for most of the world, literal starvation is an ever present reality. As a work of cinema, the film itself is rather unimpressive, yet even if it were worse, it would be impossible to not recommend it. This story needs to be told.
Like all great mass tragedies, there must a love story; it’s an easy way to raise the stakes. Yuri (Max Irons) is an odd fit in his village. He is the only son and grandson of two legendary warriors yet wants to study painting at the university in Kiev. His love for beautiful landscapers is only matched by his love for Natalka (Samantha Barks), inseparable since childhood. When news of the Bolsheviks overthrowing the Tsars first hits their tiny village, there is celebration and hope for the future. Yet like with so many other revolutions, rural Ukrainians are left with even less freedom than they had before. The Soviets force collectivization on the farms and take a significant portion of their yeild to feed people in their homeland. Soon, large numbers are starving to death and many take up arms against their oppressors. This makes Stalin clamp down even harder, and soon whole villages are left destitute. Far away in Kiev, even artists are not free to express themselves. Imprisoned, Yuri decides to put away the brush and take up the sword.
It is impossible to fully encapsulate the horror of tragedies such as the Holodomor, so it’s best to invest an audience’s concern in a small group of characters. Unfortunately, Bitter Harvest fails in creating these compelling characters. With two notable exceptions, the performances are pretty dry, and Yuri himself comes off like a whiny brat than a noble freedom fighter. Fortunately, it succeeds widely in using these characters to highlight several important themes.
First, many in the West – now many decades removed – are tempted to view Communist ideologies through velvet lenses. After all, didn’t Barney the dinosaur tell us that sharing was important? Bitter Harvest shatters this assumption by dramatically illustrating how the Soviets used these ideas to destroy lives. They begin by promising liberation to the people, yet soon the people are slaves to the state. Every Communist government eventually becomes a dictatorship because people will abuse absolute power. It also completely denies any concept of individual rights. While the Soviet Union no longer exists, Russia’s animosity to Ukrainian sovereignty remains still.
Second, Bitter Harvest isn’t afraid to show the importance of religion in Ukrainian culture. Everyone believes in God and serves him as best they can. When the Soviets arrive, the first thing they do is ask the Church to hand over its icons under the pretense of relieving the people from oppressive ecclesial authority. These icons may have limited material value, but the real value to the state is robbing these people of their religious beliefs. The state can have no competition for its worship. The parish priest quickly hides the icons and is eventually killed for refusing to hand them over.
As the world slogs through the first few months of 2017, Bitter Harvest, despite its heavy material, comes in like a breath of fresh air. It is a film free from the political annoyances that fill our Facebook feeds and instead asserts the simple dignity of every human person. On the one hand, it argues gently for compassion to the immigrant. Yuri and Natalka don’t want to leave their home but must, not only to survive but tell the true story of Stalin’s tyranny. As our country debates immigration reform, it’s important to keep in mind Christ’s command to welcome our neighbors in need. On the other hand, it is a forceful rejection of state intrusion into its citizen’s lives. Most people are fine being left to their own devices.
In the last few frames, it is left up to the viewer to decide the fate of the main characters. Yet what is known is that many Ukrainians did successfully make it to North America, where they thrived under our precious freedoms. This is something we should never take for granted.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on February 22nd, 2017.