MPAA Rating: R
USCCB Rating: AIII
Reel Rating: (3 out of 5 reels)
The history of “Fatima’s century” is marked with blood, perhaps most famously with the Holocaust and the six million Jews who were systematically murdered by the National Socialist Party in an attempt to eradicate the race. But that evil was not the first and certainly not the last in the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Bitter Harvest is a fictional tale that documents the Holodomor, in which Soviet authorities created an artificial famine in the early 1930s that killed at least three million Ukrainians in just over a year (and perhaps as many as 7.5 million total)—and yet is virtually unknown in the West except by those who fled its horror.
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 tragedies, especially on such a massive scale, there must a love story; it’s an easy way to set and then raise the stakes. Yuri (Max Irons) is an odd fit in his village. He is the only son and grandson of two legendary warriors, but wishes to study painting at the university in Kiev. His love for beautiful landscapes is only matched by his love for Natalka (Samantha Barks); the two have been inseparable since childhood.
When news of the Bolsheviks overthrowing the Tsars first reaches their tiny village, there is celebration and hope for the future. Yet as 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 yield 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 with even more brutal ferocity, 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 or comprehend a horror 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 more as a whiny brat than a noble freedom fighter. Fortunately, the film still succeeds widely in using these characters to highlight several important themes.
First, many in the West today are tempted (or simply wish) to view Communist ideologies in soft focus, avoiding clarity and detail. Wasn’t Communism just a good, humane system that was corrupted by a few? (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 specific, ideological lies and ideas to destroy lives. They began by promising liberation to the people, yet soon the people were slaves to the state. Every Communist government eventually becomes a dictatorship because people will not only grasp for absolute power, they believe the ends justifies the means. Communism, in the end, completely denies any concept of individual rights; the State is the sum of all things. While the Soviet Union no longer exists, Russia’s animosity to Ukrainian sovereignty still remains, along with its denial of the Holodomor.
Second, Bitter Harvest isn’t afraid to show the importance of religion in Ukrainian culture. The Ukrainian people believe in God and serve him as best they can. When the Soviets arrive, the first thing they do is tell the Church to hand over its icons under the pretense of relieving the people from oppressive ecclesial authority. The icons may have limited material value, but the real value to the State is robbing the people of their religious beliefs, customs, and culture. The State can have no competition; it alone must be served (and thus, essentially, worshipped). The parish priest in the film is shown hiding the icons; he 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 surprising breath of fresh air. It is a film free from the political conflicts and annoyances that fill our Facebook feeds and instead asserts the simple but profound truth of the dignity of every human person. On the one hand, it argues gently for compassion to the refugee and immigrant. Yuri and Natalka don’t want to leave their home but must, not only to survive but to tell the true story of Stalin’s tyranny.
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.