When Lukas (Serhiy Stepansky), a translator working for the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) finds himself and his fellow personnel stranded whilst driving through war-torn rural Ukraine, he finds an unlikely saviour in the form of Vova (Viktor Zhdanov), an eccentric patriarch who spends his free time metal-detecting along the area’s beach, who takes him to stay with him and his elderly mother (Tamara Sotsenko) and daughter Maryushka (Khrystyna Deilyk). However, Lukas soon finds himself to be a stranger in his own country as the cultural gap between him and his new surroundings begins to reveal itself before him.
Bondarchuk, who also co-wrote the script, adeptly contrasts the more worldly character of Lukas with the rural village whilst maintaining a naturalistic tone. In particular, moments such as Vova pawning Lukas’s watch for money and Lukas’s unspoken mutual attraction to Maryushka are more effective due to their low-key nature than had they been played more conventionally and broadly as typical ‘fish out of water’ comedic tropes. This approach also works for Lukas’s interactions with Vova, whose particular obsession with excavating the bones of German soldiers could have come across as a cloying character quirk in the wrong hands, but instead serves as an effective representation of Ukraine’s turbulent history of occupation.
It is this last element that is the most important aspect of the film, with Vova’s obsession being only one of many visual and narrative moments that reflect Ukraine’s uncertain identity as an independent country and the resulting reassertion of Ukrainian cultural identity by the supporting characters.
These include a nationalistic speech before a circus strongman show and Vova’s mother’s dismissive responses to an expansionist speech given by Vladimir Putin. Bondarchuk, as well as co-writers Dar’ya Averchenko and Alla Tyutyunnik, effectively uses these individual moments to not only illustrate issues of Ukrainian identity, but also to contrast their cast-iron certainty with Lukas’s more international nature as a translator and resulting uncertainty regarding his own identity.
As a result of this handling of the above issues, Bondarchuk and his fellow writers manage to elevate Volcano above its deceptively simple fish-out-of-water premise to ask more politically relevant questions about Ukrainian identity, as well as how national identity can offer a stability not found within belonging to more international communities. It is this element that results in the viewer leaving the film asking more questions than when he or she started watching it.