2010: Polish Feature Films
2010 wasn't a spectacular year for films, although a handful did manage to shine for their talented actors, cinematic vision and treatment of the meaning behind human actions and relationships
2010 didn't manage to produce any films that would equal last year's Rewers by Borys Lankosz or Dom Zły by Wojciech Smarzowski. In other words, there were few films that stood out in the crowd or made it big at the box office. Few films made an impact and yet it cannot be said that the past year was wasted for Polish cinema. After all, there were a couple of distinguishable films. Certainly Marek Lechki's Erratum would make the list. It won the competition for the best debut film at the most recent festival in Gdynia. Lechki had already won a Special Jury Award in Gdynia eight years ago with Moje miasto - a film he made as part of the Pokolenie 2000 program - and it just goes to show that it is possible to debut twice.
The main character of Erratum is a thirty-something man, who, after years living away from home returns to the place where he grew up. Michał had once played in a rock band and dreamt of a career in music, but eventually fate took him down a different path. He moved to a larger town and started working in a thriving accounting firm, and pursued the same goals as others of his generation: the typical nine-to-five mundane rat race. In an accident that is not his fault, Michał runs over an old, homeless man, killing him. This event causes him to make an internal balance sheet of what really mattered most to him in life. It is also an opportunity to attempt a truce with his own father, with whom he had been at odds for years. For what reason? It is not clearly stated in the film, but few words are spoken in "Erratum" altogether in this subtle story about a man who returns to his roots, to see if he can straighten out his life. In this film important issues are discussed in depth - albeit casually and without pomposity. Like in Intimni osvetleni" / "Intimate Lighting, 1965) by Ivan Passer, one of the greatest films to come out of the Czech cinema school, to which Lechki appears to aspire. It is worth noting that thanks to his minimalist style, lead actor Tomasz Kot perfectly fits this film. Kot - who is generally considered a sitcom and romantic comedy actor (perhaps best known for his role in the Polish version of "The Nanny") - is superb in this role, such as in the beautiful scene where Michał visits his father's home and knocks on the door. Such a simple gesture is taken to new heights, as if the character is knocking on the door to his own soul.
At the festival in Gdynia, in addition to the previously mentioned award for best debut, Erratum also garnered the journalists' prize. International critics also spoke warmly of Lechki's film, such as the prestigious Variety and ScreenDaily websites. It went on to win praise at some international festivals as well: at the 15th International Film Festival in Busan (one of the most important film events in Asia), it received a Special Jury Award in the "Flash Forward" category, and at the Chicago festival, it won the Golden Plaque in the "New Directors" category. It therefore comes as a surprise that Erratum, one of the year's most successful films was not very popular among Polish cinemagoers.
The opposite applies to Marcin Wrona's Chrzest" / "The Christening which, in turn, enjoyed a great deal of success at the box office. Why am I mentioning this film here? Because there is a connection between Erratum and Chrzest. Not just because Wrona's film was also awarded in Gdynia, winning a Silver Lion, and its main actors - Wojciech Zieliński and Tomasz Schuchardt - taking home Best Actors Awards. But that is not the reason for this connection. It is often said that the real litmus test for directors in not their first, but their second film. And these two films are the follow-up to both directors' debuts. In both cases the test demonstrated not only that both Lechki and Wrona have something to say, but also that they both know how to say it. Both have mastered the technique, although of course, each director applies it differently.
For Marcin Wrona, the most important element of cinema is emotion. Thus, for example, despite being filled with blood, fights and violence, Chrzest is hardly an action film. It is primarily a story about love and sacrifice, and also the parable of the struggle between good and evil. And the parable is not some word which is thrown about. Wrona likes to sow his films with metaphors. Not without reason, then, is the director not really involved in directing fact, but meaning.
Marcin Wrona's film was enthusiastically greeted by audiences and critics at international film festivals, including the Toronto festival, Reykjavik (where it received a special mention) as well as in San Sebastian, where viewers ranked it the highest among non-Spanish language productions. Chrzest and Erratum were the only two Polish films in the main competition at the Warsaw Film Festival in 2010.
Debut filmmakers did not have such as strong outing this year, although some were quite satisfactory. Such was the case with Paweł Sala's Matka Teresa od kotów" / "Mother Teresa of Cats. The film portrays a real-life matricide committed by two young brothers. This was Sala's first feature film, having previously made a name for himself in the theatre and documentary filmmaking. From the beginning he argued that he was not interested in the suspense or the mystery of the story. Instead, in this "anti-thriller" there is no doubt from the outset as to who killed whom. Later in subsequent flashbacks, he recreates moments from everyday life in order to shape the story forward by going back from the bloddy act, allowing the audience to understand what, over the years, had changed this family's peaceful existence into a nightmare.
One must admit that the idea of being both a writer and director appears to be a very good idea. It is a pity therefore that it doesn't quite work in this instance. This is because Paweł Sala intended to make an art film (referencing Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Matka Joanna od aniołów" / "Mother Joanna of the angels tells us a great deal). Unfortunately in Poland "artistic films" are just an excuse to keep things simple - that is, not quite bothering to polish up the final material... ultimately, leaving much to be desired. The film's characters are sometimes hard to decipher, and it might be easy for the director to explain that this was precisely the intention of the author: to let the members of the audience come to their own conclusions. Nonetheless, it's hard not to notice that the director's imagination has failed him. As did his sense of composition.
The characters sometimes appear so distorted and incomplete that they are hardly believable. As the artist that he is, he does not diligently follow the crime which has been committed, but instead tries to decipher and arrive at the heart of darkness, the root of all evil.
The father of the young killers is a professional soldier, deployed in Afghanistan. The war has changed him into an emotional vegetable. This artificial thread in the script, which is barely related to the other elements of the story, helps make Matka Teresa od kotów even more absurd and abstract than originally intended. In any case, after roughly half of the film has already flashed before you, it quickly becomes apparent that nothing new about this character is to be divulged. The director slides across the surface on many matters, not quite studying their merits.
So what saves the Sala's film in the end? The acting. First of all there is Ewa Skibińska, who plays the title character who gets killed by her sons, although her part is basically a supporting role. The action of the foreground is mainly played out by the two brothers played by Mateusz Kościukiewicz and Filip Garbacz - two obviously very talented young actors. At the last festival in Karlovy Vary, they both got awards for best male roles. But it is Skibińska who is the only one who brings some truth to Sala's film. Above all, the actress in not looking for sympathy for her character. She is strong, thriving to find a solution to any problem which might come her way.
Such a role is definitely missing in Skrzydlate świnie" / "Pigs Fly, a film by Anna Kazejak, whose previous directorial credit was for the collaborative project Ody do radośći" / "Ode to joy, 2005). Skrzydlate swinie is a film about the honour of a football fan, where the main character is played by TV star Paweł Małaszyński, which at once overturned the whole story and gave it some credibility. Apparently from the start this was to be more of a film to watch, rather than a though-provoking one, but that does not necessarily indicate an absence of original thought. Still, the emotions of this group - such as aggression, and joy - are a good commodity in today's world. In a word, this was a great disappointment, especially since Anna Kazejak, has shown that she can observe reality, as she did with Bocznicy.Ewa Stankiewicz also let us down, who, like Kazejak, had her independent debut feature film this year. Why the disappointment? Mainly because of the fact that in Nie opuszczaj mnie" / "Do not leave me - her story of a woman and a man who desperately try to fill an empty void after a painful loss in their lives - is directed on only one hysterical note. And although audiences could somehow believe the emotional quivering of the film, the writing is pretentious and can really no longer be believed.
Yet all this does not mean that in 2010 there were absolutely no successful debuts in Polish cinema in general. Because there were. One can simply recall Prosta historia o miłości" / "A simple Story About Love by Arkadiusz Jakubik. The film was made independently, although it should be immediately noted here that this was not the choice of the authors, but a necessity - Jakubik, despite his efforts, did not receive any grant on behalf of the Polish National Film Institute. In the case of the actor's directorial debut, known for his excellent performances in Wesele" / "The Wedding and Dom Zły" / "House of Evil by Wojciech Smarzowski, as a director he only confirms the saying that what does not kill you makes you stronger.
Indeed, in spite of financial issues, Jakubik made a very mature film, which is worth noting because so-called independent productions in Poland are usually associated with amateurism. That is not the case here. The movie has a balanced composition in spite of a rather complicated structure (the film revolves around action that takes place on several levels of reality), its narrative is coherent, and the acting really good, especially in the case of Magdalena Popławska. A Simple Story About Love is not omitted by the direct quotations and allusions to other films, primarily to Pociąg"/ "Train directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, but also to works by Woody Allen, Robert Altman and Lars Von Trier, and yet, paradoxically, its greatest strength is its freshness. In addition, the flair and lightness in which he talks about the most important matters in life, such as love, creativity and life itself, which - like a train - constantly takes us somewhere.
At the film festival in Gdynia, Jakubik's film was not admitted into the Main Competition, although there were several titles in the competition weaker than his. But in the independent cinema festival review, Prosta historia o miłości" / "A simple story about love won the Grand Prix.
And if we're already on this topic, let's take the opportunity to mention a very interesting documentary feature film debut by Kinga Dębska. In the end, no matter how you look at it, it bears the title Hel (the film was made in 2009, but had its cinematic release this year). It is a story about a heroin-addicted doctor played by the great Paweł Królikowski in the lead role. Dębska does not moralize her main character. Her film, which touches upon the problem of drugs, explains first and foremost about human weakness, which may be experienced by anyone and sometimes in the most unexpected moment. None of us is a hero, and heroin can take on many forms and different chemical compositions. Paweł Królikowski was able to tackle this state of permanent threat, with a great sense, browsing the fate of his character, which he was able to make credible in every aspect and detail, adding depth, even where the director tried to cut corners.
This year, the Golden Lions in Gdynia were awarded to the film Różyczka" / "Little Rose, directed by Jan Kidawa-Błoński. Różyczka is not so much a historical or biographical movie, but more so a classic melodrama. Although the film references certain facts in the life of Polish historian Paweł Jasienica, whose second wife was suspected of being a secret service agent. However these facts were only a loose inspiration for the director. The film is primarily a story about love in times of a political plague. Largely fictional, but surprisingly successful as it weaves together meticulously reconstructed realities of both a political and material worlds. One may even go so far as to say that the this is by far the best film from the director, who also made Skazany na Blues" / "Destined for Blues, which undoubtedly is attributed to the acting in great measure – Magdalena Boczarska (awarded in Gdynia for the leading female role), and Robert Więckiewicz. At the International Film Festival in Moscow, Jan Kidawa-Błoński received the Silver St. George Award for directing Różyczka. The film was screened at festivals in Pusan, Haifa, and Mar del Plata as well as the International Film Festival in Goa, India, where it was the sole Polish title competing in the main competition (Magdalena Boczarska won the award for Best Actress).
Then there is Joanna. This is one of the better films in Feliks Falk's achievements. The story of a young resident of Kraków during the Nazi occupation, who hides a Jewish girl, is in one way, refined in every detail of the reconstruction of "inhumane times", on the other hand - a universal metaphor for showing that it is often impossible to distinguish appearance from the truth. In any case, the director, as he emphasises, did not try to shoot another film about the Holocaust, yet tried to show a story about the injustice of fate, which could be experienced by anyone of us. In Joanna, which won the award for best director in Gdynia, this injustice affects a woman, who does not have any traits to be a heroine, yet with all her might, attempts to cope with her heroic role, for which she meets her punishment when it is least expected. Falk's film, much like Różyczka, is more of a psychological rather than historical drama, hence so much depended on his portrayal of the heroine. One has to admit that Urszula Grabowska fulfilled her task brilliantly. This is without a doubt a great creation. One can really only have one critique against Feliks Falk - the metaphorical finale which blurs events, rather than illuminating them.
More tenured directors with a few more films under their belt did not have as much luck this year as Kidawa-Błoński and Falk. The strength of Wenecja" / "Venice, directed by Jan Jakub Kolski rides on the plot - which also takes place in Poland during the Second World War and features cinematography by Arthur Reinhart (awarded the Golden Frog at the last Plus Camerimage Festival). It is certainly Kolski's best film, winning him the Special Jury Award for Special Achievement at the Art World Film Festival in Montreal, since Pornografia" / "Pornography, 2003. Nonetheless, it is difficult to disregard that while the director gives the film a beautiful show of cinematic calligraphy, he has little to say. There is a lot of intellectual emptiness and aesthetic coolness in this entry into the life of a minor character.
Dorota Kędzierzawska did not achieve that much success either, which in Jutro będzie lepiej" / "Tomorrow will be better once again returned to her former concerns with the "questions of children". However, this time with a much worse effect than even in her film Wrony" / "Crows. Her ballad about three homeless minors, who, in search of their promised land pass through the green border from Russia to Poland, is not only annoying for its excessive sentimentality, it also sports an awkward narration. On the other hand, the film Jestem twój" / "I am yours by Mariusz Grzegorzek annoys the viewer with its theatricality. In this story of love, which is both a form of enslavement, as well as a function of being lost, really consists of only characters and dramatic persona, lacking any real characters. And there is an intolerable pretension throughout. Nothing can be better applied to Made in Poland directed by Przemysław Wojcieszek, where the "rebellious feel" is more of a creative matter rather than a sense of actual emotions - that is why it is so hard to believe the rebellious nature of the hero of this film.
Which Polish films in 2010 made the greatest impact in the world? Of course, there was Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing. While it was an international co-production (Norwegian-Polish-Hungarian-Irish), it was in a large part co-financed by the Polish Film Institute (with a grant amounting to 5 million PLN). The film got a great deal of publicity for various reasons. Firstly, this was thanks to different festival awards (Special Jury Prize and the award for best actor for Vincent Gallo at the Venice Film Festival, Grand Prize awarded for best film and acting for Gallo at the International Film Festival in Mar Del Plata), as well as - above all - because of the film's subject. Essentially, the hero's theme - an Afghan Talib, who transferred to one of the secret CIA prisons in Central Europe, flees from guards during an accident in transport. Essential Killing is not a dark version of Hollywood's The Fugitive (1993), but rather a continuation of Fires on the Plain by Kon Ichikawa. In Skolimowski's film, just as in the Japanese one, for a hero to survive, he must become a beast. Essential Killing is a masterpiece and yet it still raises questions. And it is not about that Skolimowski exaggerated with the presence of secret CIA prisons in the Mazurian region in his film, nor that he showed Poland as a wild country of primitive people. Skolimowski has to be criticized first and foremost, that he often had more concern for the effect, rather than the pursuit of truth. Such as in the scene where the hungry fugitive throws himself at a mother with a baby in her arms, grabbing at her breasts and sucking her milk. Meanwhile, the woman holds a big bag in her hand (was she returning from a shopping trip through the forest?), and the aggressor is not even bothered to look inside it, although, anyone else in his situation, would do exactly that. Well, burying oneself into the contents of a bag would not look as spectacular on screen as having Vincent Gallo pinned to the heavy breast of a Polish mother. It may not seem all that significant, but it exactly these types of details that make Skolimowski's film at times not even so much impressive as simply showy.
And that would be all regarding so-called art cinema. And what about entertaining cinema? In 2010, once again, there were a few miserable romantic comedies such as: Ciacho" / "Cookie and Śniadanie do łóżka" / "Breakfast in Bed. Juliusz Machulski shot a static sketch-based horror: Kołysanka" / "Lullaby and Jacek Koprowicz filmed a literary joke without any success. Anyway, Jan Hryniak's film Trick was also released to the dismay of film critics. But the audience liked it nevertheless. Similarly, the big-screen adaptation of Fredro's Śluby panieńskie" / "Maiden Vows directed by Filip Bajon. Although no one knows why this movie has nineteenth-century characters talking on cell phones, but it is neither about the meaning nor logic here, but more importantly, about what would be cool. And it is.
Author: Lech Kurpiewski, December 2010. Translated by Roberto Galea, December 2010.