Once Upon a Time in November is a touching story about modern Poland, born out of concern and social disobedience, but not free of journalistic simplifications.
The title of Andrzej Jakimowski’s new film could suggest that he directed a fairy tale. If so, however, it is the saddest fairy tale you will see in cinemas this autumn, a fairy tale about Poland torn apart by ideological divides, full of aggression and social inequalities.
Its heroes are a mother (Agata Kulesza) and her son Mareczek (the magnetic Grzegorz Palkowski), who have just been evicted. She was once a teacher, but lost her job and is now heavily depressed. He studies law and hopes that he will get a dorm room soon. Since a bailiff took over their apartment, they wander from hostel to homeless shelter, and from garden plots to Warsaw squats. Over time they are joined by another wretch, a stray dog named Koleś (‘Buddy’), which makes finding a place to sleep even more difficult.
By showing the mother and Mareczek’s wandering, the director of Tricks portrays contemporary Poland’s intimidating reality – touched by indifference and institutionally inefficient. Jakimowski’s Poland is perhaps speckled with the Kotwica, the emblem of the Polish Underground State and the Home Army, but it’s definitely not supportive. Nobody cares about others’ poverty: the bailiff does not see Mareczek and his mother as human beings; the police know that they can’t do anything for the homeless young man; in urban shelters rules often turn out to be more important than empathy.
Jakimowski shows the Polish social system’s inefficiency and how anyone can become its victim. Poverty does not have the face of the drunk from Edi, but that of two intellectuals – an ex-teacher and a future lawyer. In Poland, where the middle class is just a few missed payments away from homelessness, Jakimowski’s story turns out to be highly universal.
During the 14 years which passed since Jakimowski’s debut Squint Your Eyes, he worked out his own film idiolect. He narrated in his own way, without haste and with tenderness. In Tricks and the excellent Imagine, he lets himself be known as cinema’s poet. Once Upon a Time…, although entirely different from those titles, confirms his voice’s strength.
Its strength lies in the studious observance of life. It is exactly Once Upon a Time’s… documentalistic observation which becomes the director’s greatest strength. Instead of making a character tell monologues about his hardships, Jakimowski shows a young man pressing his hands against a warm radiator. Here, small gestures mean more than words.
When reviewing Jakimowski’s film, Łukasz Maciejewski noticed that realistic episodes composing it could become topics for features in the local press. This is Once Upon a Time’s… biggest malady. The documentalist observance of life gives way to journalism. Jakimowski reaches for Małgorzata Szumowska’s method and rewords newspaper headlines into film scenes. Thus we have a story about rampant reprivatisation, police-station violence, heartless bailiffs and Polish nationalism, which becomes the film’s second part’s topic.
Here, Jakimowski the poet moves over for Jakimowski the citizen. While Ken Loach, cinema’s great socialist, who has been speaking up for the weakest for years, is the film’s first sequences’ patron, the concluding sequences are closer to Oliver Stone and Michael Moore’s engaged features.
When the Tricks director talks about nationalists rioting at the November 11th celebrations, when Poles commemorate independence, and destroying one of Warsaw’s squats, literality creeps into Once Upon a Time…. The journalistic discussion about the Polish legal system is written into the dialogues of two lecturers; the squat becomes a symbol for social equality’s last stand; and the characters give impassioned speeches about Warsaw insurgents giving their lives for the fatherland.
Jakimowski cannot stop and say to himself: that’s enough. He still adds new scenes and new topics to his film. And even if he is right, and his emotions and civil stance are easily understandable, the film loses out because of its journalistic tone.
- Once Upon a Time in November. Directing and screen-writing: Andrzej Jakimowski, cinematography: Andrzej Bajerski, music: Tomasz Gąssowski. Cast: Agata Kulesza, Grzegorz Palkowski and others.
Originally written by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, November 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, October 2017.Bartosz Staszczyszyn