The film discards the melancholy and wit of the Jerzy Pilch novel it's based on and paints a ruthless portrait of human decay. Wojtek Smarzowski's story of an writer-alcoholic leaves no illusions.
Robert Więckiewicz in Wojtek Smarzowski's "Angel", photo: Jacek Drygała
Adapting the literary story of a writer who spins a tale of addiction and hope, the longing for love and the shabbiness of a drunkard's life to the screen was no stroll in the park. In his decision to do so, Wojtek Smarzowski attempted the impossible. Jerzy Pilch's Pod Mocnym Aniołem / The Mighty Angel is replete with long and rich phrases, literary wit and self-depreciation. The author of Bezpowrotnie utracona leworęcznośc / The Irreversible Loss of Left-Handedness contrives comedy by juxtaposing content with form - in Mighty Angel (which inspired Smarzowski's Angel) biblical stylisation clashes with human degradation, giving birth to the absurd.
Laying in a Bed of Barf
Smarzowski's new film is a slap in the liver. Its effects are gradual: it shortens your breath and makes you feel like throwing up until you finally fall over from exhaustion. There is no warning of the impending knock out in the first sequence of scenes. In the beginning Smarzowski seems to want to numb his opponent, the rhythm is stable with sporadic blows of bewilderment - a humorous monologue here, whimsical and innocent behaviour there. The viewer feels that he can keep his distance.
The first forty minutes come across as though Smarzowski, the great director who shocked and stirred in Dom zły / The Dark House and Róża / Rose, had lost his touch. But right when we are numbed enough to pour scorn on Angel, the film-maker flexes his muscles to deal a death blow. The ensuing scenes patch up the storyline and give the film a new meaning.
Smarzowski has his own way of reading Pilch. He drains the melancholy and intellectual innuendos right out of its body. He is left with what remains. What remains is the sad life of a derelict - a shaking, downtrodden man lying in a bed of barf (a brilliant performance by Robert Więckiewicz). The director of The Wedding spares the viewer no gory details in the life of an alcoholic. "There is no such thing as the philosophy of drinking. There's only the technique of drinking" – says one of the characters in Pilch's novel, going by the nickname Christopher Columbus. In the film these words are spoken by the protagonist, but the truth spoken by Smarzowski, is even more dire. There is no philosophy of drinking, there is only a journey on a slippery slide - a sad, terrifying one-way slope.
The film doesn't lack bad, unaccomplished and unnecessary scenes. There are cheap jokes taken straight out of the scripts for bad comedies. Just like the protagonist of the book who uses words to patch up the emptiness, every now and again Smarzowski loses his rhythm and abuses his favourite film-making gimmicks (shots and editing schemes).
In the Swirl of Addiction
For Pilch's protagonist, telling stories was a secular exorcism. Making them up helped push the despair to the side. Waging war on language was an existential battle. Telling stories, like the ecstasy of perfect love affair, was supposed to tear him away from the vicious circle of alcoholism. Smarzowski, however, doesn't believe that words can heal.
Playing with his own image of a ladies man and occasional drinker, Smarzowski turned his protagonist into a caricature of his own alter ego, just like Pilch did in the book. After all, the character of the alcoholic director (Marcin Dorociński) is a joke at his own expense (the artist is congratulated for the success of a film that resembles The Dark House). And it's not the only one. Smarzowski purposefully juggles with his own quotes, which replace literary stylisations and erudite quotes from the novel. He refers back to his debut film Małżowina, copies scenes from Dark House, welcomes his favourite actors from The Wedding back on set, operates an industrial camera just like in Drogówka / Traffic Department and casts Bartłomiej Topa as the policeman.
Robert Więckiewicz and Julia Kijowska in Wojtek Smarzowski's "Angel", photo: Jacek Drygała
This is more than a director's prank. He is looking to transfer the fullness of Jerzy Pilch's multilayered story onto film. While with ironic distance Pilch declared his faith in the cleansing power of narration, Smarzowski, seeks to declare the exact opposite. Inventing stories about other people and appropriating their biographies (under the influence of alcohol the protagonists and stories start to blend together), Jerzy (the protagonist of the book and the film) forcefully tries to cast a spell on reality. But in Angel, there is no escaping the vicious circle of alcoholism. There is the repetitive story of downfall. The film's open ending changes nothing in that matter.
In adapting Pilch's novel, Smarzowski cut the umbilical cord. Instead of a melancholy tale about love in times of delirium, he spoke about the drama of alcoholism. And even though his film smites with esthetic bluntness, Angel is far more than a journalistic warning against the sickness. It's also a story about a life deprived of hope and the disappearing mirages of love, success and lifelong fulfilment.
- Pod Mocnym Aniołem / Angel, Script and directing: Wojtek Smarzowski, based on a novel by Jerzy Pilch. Cinematography: Tomasz Madejski. Music: Mikołaj Trzaska. Editing: Paweł Laskowski. Set design: Jagna Janicka. Sound: Jacek Hamela. Cast: Robert Więckiewicz, Julia Kijowska, Adam Woronowicz, Jacek Braciak, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Iwona Wszołkówna, Lech Dyblik, Kinga Preis, Iwona Bielska, Marian Dziędziel, Krzysztof Kiersznowski, Marcin Dorociński, Izabela Kuna, Andrzej Grabowski, Robert Wabich, Eryk Lubos i inni. Polish premiere: January 17th 2014.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by Mai Jones 16.01.2014