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Film review: Pamfir and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

19 May 2023

Stephen Brown reviews Ukrainian and UK films

Oleksandr Yatsentyuk, Solomia Kyrylova, and Stanislav Potiak in Pamfir

Oleksandr Yatsentyuk, Solomia Kyrylova, and Stanislav Potiak in Pamfir

THE Ukrainian film Pamfir (Cert. 15) asks profound questions about goodness and God. Olena (Solomiya Kyrylova) is a villager in the Chernivtsi region. Her unwavering Christian faith to some extent controls potentially anti-social behaviour on the part of her husband, Leonid (Oleksandr Yatsentyuk), and son, Nazar (Stanislav Potiak).

The father (nicknamed Pamfir) is decent enough, but, historically, economic necessities have sometimes impelled him into smuggling contraband from across the Romanian border near by. In an attempt to go straight and make ends meet, Leonid has been working abroad in a relatively lucrative job. He has been greatly missed by the family. Striving to keep his father at home, Nazar sets fire to Leonid’s renewed work permit, badly damaging the church in which it is stored.

Pastor Andrii (Ihor Danchuk) is local administrator of such documents. The arsonist’s identity is unmistakable. Leonid agrees to pay rebuilding costs, on condition that Olena is left unaware of everything. She interprets the blaze as God’s will, because it means that her husband is detained at home till fresh papers are issued. Leonid feels that he has no choice but to borrow money from the village warlord. It comes at a price: more smuggling. Christianity is also compromised. It turns out that the mob owns the church. The systemic corruption pervading the community is born out of poverty. Like Shaw’s Alfred Doolittle, the people can’t afford to have morals.

The film is a telling example of the law of unintended consequences. Nazar craves his father’s attention (good), and so, in the process of prolonging his company, accidentally lays waste a holy place (bad). Leonid strives to make amends (good) by, in effect, stealing (bad). He has little time for faith. The pastor reckons that Leonid is angry with God when, really, it is with a priest who publicly humiliated his beloved grandfather over an icon that he had painted. Pamfir means rock, and there is a sense in which the man has hardened himself against the possibility of divine grace.

But can we completely take leave of God in the way in which we conduct our lives? Olena doesn’t believe so. God is here transforming our pain into fuel. Like St Paul, she views momentary affliction as preparation for an eternal glory beyond measure. Leonid cannot wait that long. Much of the anguish derives from the overlap and/or clash of cultures. Living so near another country, part of the European Union, colours the population’s attitudes. If Romania is a land ostensibly flowing with milk and honey, where do we the downtrodden find relief?

The director, Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, shrouds the surrounding forests in darkness and mist, the sort of environment from which grim fairytales emerge. Witness the pagan elements that we have seen lurking beneath this veneer of Christian belief. We just know that they will manifest themselves before the picture ends. In the face of corporate and personal despair, these are echoes of another of Shaw’s interrogations of religion, economics, and society (Major Barbara): “What price salvation now?”

The answer is Leonid’s sacrifice, key to this enthralling film. As Pamfir, he becomes the stricken rock from which living waters of genuine Christianity start to flow.


THE strapline promoting The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Cert. 12A) declares that he doesn’t embark on his pilgrimage for spiritual reasons, but is enlightened by the journey. Shades of Dag Hammarskjöld’s diary reflections, Markings: “It is not we who seek the Way, but the Way which seeks us.”

Jim Broadbent in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

In this film, based on Rachel Joyce’s novel, which developed out of a radio play, Harold (Jim Broadbent), now retired, receives a letter from Queenie (Linda Bassett). He had worked with her at a brewery. She is terminally ill at a hospice in Berwick on Tweed. He and his wife, Maureen (Penelope Wilton), live in Devon. Harold writes a brief heartfelt reply and sets out to post it. Instead, he decides to walk nearly 500 miles and deliver the letter.

James Bolam did something similar in the BBC’s The Missing Postman (1997). There’s also a hint of Sheila Hancock’s octogenarian title character in Edie (2017), who sets out on a strenuous quest.

It gradually becomes clear that this is Harold’s way of atoning. Flashbacks to issues with the marriage, their son, and the workplace reveal a timid and deeply regretful character. If all he wanted to do was visit Queenie as swiftly as possible, given her condition, then he would have taken a train. His mode of travel requires effort. A chance conversation leads him to believe that, so long as he has the faith to keep walking, then Queenie will stay alive. Harold regularly speaks to the nuns managing the hospice, phoning a bewildered and angry Maureen, and sending postcards to update Queenie on his progress. There is only a slow realisation, facilitated by those he meets, that this journey is more like a pilgrimage.

The Way certainly appears to seek him out. Many of his encounters have the Christ-like quality of a wounded healer. Martina — a doctor in her native Slovakia, working as a lavatory cleaner here — washes and soothes Harold’s injured feet. Wilf (Daniel Frogson), a recovering drug addict, assures him of the Lord’s love and prays with him. Sister Philomena (Joy Richardson) showers him with blessings.

The word “pilgrim”, derived from the Latin peregrinus, has connotations of someone travelling through a strange and foreign land. This is less about geography for Harold, more about discovering through his own brokenness that he has been ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. And, while there are unwelcome aspects to the journey (like fellow travellers’ jeopardising his personal intentions for walking), Harold does find pilgrimage a gift that keeps on giving. As Maureen (herself on a kind of pilgrimage) remarks, “a small miracle” has occurred.

All well and good, perhaps; but Hettie Macdonald’s film doesn’t quite pull off the emotional and spiritual tone of the book. It can be a mistake for novelists to adapt their own works for the cinema. What Rachel Joyce so beautifully captured on page has been insufficiently fleshed out here. The main characters’ interior lives and some tantalising spaces between the words left readers to ponder for themselves those unexamined elements of being human. On screen, lack of information about past feelings is likely to frustrate rather than intrigue viewers. So Harold’s enlightenment remains obscure, despite the best efforts of Broadbent and Wilton.

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