The biggest revelation of the 39th Gdynia Film Festival, Łukasz Palkowski’s Gods (Bogowie) is excellently written, effective and poignant. This on-screen biography of Zbigniew Religa offers a gripping rhythm and a seductive sense of humour.
Religa was a rockstar of Polish medicine, a rebel who denied all authority and forced his way through. Zbigniew Religa, as portrayed in Gods, is nothing like the noble professor and minister that he came across as to the Polish public. Łukasz Palkowski chose to retell three years of the life of a doctor who revolutionized cardiac surgery in Poland and created a portrait of a man facing his own ambition and reality.
His Gods is one of the most American-like Polish movies from the past few years: a story of a self-made man who, despite the harsh communist reality, realized his professional dream, which surpassed the dominating mindset by far. Nevertheless, Gods is not just a story of a great success, but also of picking oneself up after a fall.
The mysterious Zbigniew Religa
The young doctor, having come back from the US, intends to apply the latest world improvements in transplantology, but is blocked by the restrictions ruling the People’s Republic of Poland. The old ward heads do not allow their younger colleagues to operate, while the hospital authorities ban any innovations. Even when Religa opens his own clinic and gains some independence, he does not escape the same problems – the communist government declines funding for the equipment and medicine becomes the victim of politics.
Palkowski’s protagonist wants to destroy the fossilized political structures and the public superstitions, according to which the heart is seen as a relic, and not a “glorious pump.” At the same time, his Religa faces his own pride – each death of a patient is a painful blow to his ambition. He relieves his helplessness through alcohol. Palkowski is honest in his narration of that process – he is not interested in Religa’s grandeur, but his humanity.
1980s Poland comes into life in this film – it is neither demonized, nor sentimentally mellowed down. Piotr Sobociński, the director of photography, used twenty-year-old cameras in order to achieve an accurate visual effect. The authors of Gods increase the pace and refrain from empty, meaningless scenes. What we are presented with is vivid rhythm, dynamic editing, and continuous impetus – on to the next scene, to the plot thread.
Palkowski dexterously combines both biography and medical drama, and comedy with melodrama. Gods escapes straightforward genre divisions, balancing between different shades of emotions. Several humorous excerpts are juxtaposed with moving scenes with the professor’s wife, who pays a high price for his dreams and ambitions.
Kot’s masterful role
Palkowski’s success wouldn’t have happened without Tomasz Kot, who plays the lead role (years back he played in another biographical film, impersonating the blues/rock musician Ryszard Riedel in the film Destined for Blues / Skazany na bluesa). Typically stoop-shouldered and chain-smoking, Kot appears genuine – not just because of his looks, but also thanks to his comical and dramatic enactments.
Piotr Głowacki yet again proves that he is Poland’s no. 1 supporting actor. Szymon Piotr Warszawski, who plays one of Religa’s assistants, and Magdalena Czerwińska, in the poignant and truthful role of the main character’s wife, Anna, also demonstrate their great acting skills.
Moving and witty, with an excellent cast and a dense plot, Gods is more than a biography of a medical celebrity. It is, first and foremost, darn good cinema.
- Gods (Bogowie), dir. Łukasz Palkowski; screenplay: Krzysztof Rak; DOP: Piotr Sobociński jr.; Soundtrack: Bartosz Chajdecki; Cast: Tomasz Kot, Piotr Głowacki, Szymon Piotr Warszawski, Rafał Zawierucha, Jan Englert, Magdalena Czerwińska, Kinga Preis, Sonia Bohosiewicz. Distribution in Poland: Next Film. Date of premiere: October 10, 2014.
Bartosz Staszczyszyn 19.09.2014, transl. A. Micińska February 2015