Dir. Andrea Maria Dusl. Austria. 2002. 97mins.

The auspicious directorial debut from Viennese columnist Andrea Maria Dusl, this road movie which takes Eastern Europe as its subject, should have no problem finding receptive audiences in German-speaking countries. In particular, the presence of Josef Hader, one of Vienna's top cabaret acts, and Detlev Buck, a leading German actor-director, will certainly strike a chord. But with careful handling, Dusl's portrait of the former socialist empire, as seen through concerned but often amused contemporary Western eyes, should be able to reach beyond these cultural barriers to the overseas arthouse circuit. Certainly the performance of Viktoria Malektorovych deserves a wider international audience.

Opening with an innocent-looking shot of the Odessa Steps, one of cinema's most celebrated locations thanks to Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, the film traces the love story between a Ukrainian girl (Viktoria Malektorovych) full of surprises and an Austrian man (Josef Hader) she meets by accident. Started haltingly and on a whim, it blossoms as the couple move further and further into the east, from Austria to Slovakia and then all the way through the Ukraine, via Lviv, Kiev, down to the Black Sea and Odessa. A third character, a fast-talking German conman (Detlev Buck) down on his luck, joins in for stretches of the road to flesh out the film's comments about the transitions taking place in this part of the world.

Originally conceived as a series of shorts about Eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Dusl felt her purpose would be much better served by combining them into one feature film. The plot that ties them together is pleasant, although at times come across as a bit loose, occasionally resorting to arbitrary subterfuges to keep the story afloat. But then what counts here is the writer/director's reflections on what she feels is still terra incognita for many of her fellow Westerners. Somewhere, between the strict political system of the past and the sudden freedom, chaos and corruption of the present, East Europeans are trying to find their own way of coping with the new economy, the new morality and the old habits, from which they have not entirely divested themselves.

Collecting incidents that she obviously feels reflect on the bigger picture, Dusl's notes are always sympathetic, and often astute and entertaining. Metaphors, such as the unfenced sheep which refuse to run away unless someone persuades them to or a money-obsessed girl who keeps communist artefacts in her home, are often used to re-enforce the message. Additional commentary is provided by nuggets of grandma's wisdom introduced in the narration and by the constantly running video camera, used to expand or underline certain points.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Viktoria Malektorovych, a young Ukrainian actress whose expressive face and body language do wonders for the lead role and hold the film together. Hader's laid-back, effectively understated performance and Buck's typically extrovert rascal offer all the support that she needs.

Prod co: Lotus Film Production
Int'l sales: First Hand Films
Prod: Klaus Pridnig, Erich Lackner
Scr: Andrea Maria Dusl
Cinematography: Wolfgang Thaler
Ed: Ressler, Andrea Wagner
Prod des: Svetlana Filahtova, Hannes Salat, Mihal Skrak
Music: Christian Fennesz, Peter Dusl, Yuri Naumov
Cast: Viktoria Malektorovych, Josef Hader, Detlev Buck