Adam (Dawid Ogrodnik) returns home to Poland. He drops by for a brief time to spend Christmas Eve with his family and share the news that his child will soon be born. Just after that he goes back to the Netherlands to get on with his life. He is not the first member of the family to leave the country to earn a living. His father (Arkadiusz Jakubik, touching as always) ‘lost his health as a construction worker in Germany’, and his uncle (Adam Cywka) worked in Belgium for years. They both came back, with money that was supposed to glue together broken family bonds. Adam wants to avoid their mistakes and has a plan for how to do it. But the family Christmas Eve dinner will thwart his dreams.
Piotr Domalewski tells a story about emigration, showing it as a Polish fate. ‘For people like us the times are always the same’, yells Adam during a fight with his father. But the director is not declaiming fiery manifestos in the style of Przemysław Wojcieszak and does not get involved in ideological quarrels. What interests him in Silent Night are the consequences of emigration, of the ruin it has wrought upon numerous Polish families.
Silent Night is a trip to Poland B (the less prosperous regions located east of the Wisła river), to brick houses furnished with cabinets from forty years ago, worn-out folding couches, and muddy backyards. But it is not just another Dark House. Domalewski portrays this world with affection. While Smarzowski’s provincial reality is grotesque and terrifying, in Domalewski’s film it is entirely natural; ugly, but tamed. The director does not barge into it as a tourist, dropping in for a second to observe how the locals live. For this artist, himself coming from the province and brought up in a large family, Silent Night is a homecoming trip. During a press conference he said:
We all know that your kin looks nice only in photographs. I wanted to tell a story about why, despite of everything, we do pose for pictures with them.
His Silent Night is essentially a love story, a love that does not have to be attested to, because the most common gestures vouch for it; about a love which is not mawkish and free from pain, but at the same time given greater meaning by this.
The constantly drunk grandfather, the father who has never been at home, the crude uncle throwing jokes around, the teenage cousins smoking joints – in Silent Night they are all comical at times, but they are never made fun of. Domalewski portrays them honestly, but with understanding. There is a symbolic, beautiful scene in his film – Adam’s younger sister plays a Christmas carol on the violin. She is out of tune, unable to hit a single note. But soon the director starts to look at her through the eyes of the protagonist. The camera takes Adam’s perspective, and then the beautiful, clean melody of Silent Night can be heard. Love allows one to see things differently.
Silent Night is a film of notable performances, and not accidentally so. Before Domalewski went behind the camera for the first time, he was an actor for years, and his experience helped during casting. The parents are exceptionally brilliant. Arkadiusz Jakubik puts on one of his best performances yet, becoming a good father who has made numerous mistakes in his life and is conscious of them, but at the same time is not able to confront them. Agnieszka Suchora, the mother, fighting for proper family relations, is excellent as well, and so is Tomasz Ziętek as the younger, inferior brother. There is also Dawid Ogrodnik, who, after several demanding and varied roles (Life Feels Good, The Last Family), portrays a more consistent character and does not rush. He builds an authentic persona from small gestures and meaningful gazes, one that we root for and whose pain we can share. Thanks to his talent and sensitivity Domalewski’s film is engaging and moving.
Silent Night is not just the best film of this year’s Gdynia Film Festival, but also one of the most important and mature Polish debuts in recent years. Domalewski combines important sociological diagnoses with a vivid history about family mysteries, about bred-in-the-bone wrongs and the love allowing to overcome them. This way he creates a film in which the Polish audience can see its own reflection.
Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by Patryk Grabowski, September 2017.