This year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival boasts a healthy number of US premieres, providing an opportunity to see movies that might otherwise never reach these shores. Zero from Poland, the second feature from writer/director Pawel Borowski (after 2003′s I Love You), might stand a better chance of returning than most. It’s certainly the glossiest-looking Polish film I can recall seeing, with stylish photography, a good rock score and a fiendishly intricate set of interlocking stories that unfold over 24 hours in Warsaw.
It’s been described as the Polish version of Crash, though that over-credits the American film’s structure. The pessimistic tone of everyday absurdity is more that of Songs From The Second Floor. In fact, it kick-starts with characters handing off center stage at whirlwind speed: a businessman calls two slobby guys in a van about a surveillance job (they turn out to be ninja buggers); they stop to buy a paper from a roadside vendor; the cab behind also buys a paper and when the passenger gets to his office. His colleague is on the phone with her mother at a hospital where a little boy may die if he doesn’t get 4,000 Euros for a transplant, while a porn star is lost and late for work.
The hand-offs are managed deftly, locations switched by telephone or the camera picking up a character passing as if by chance. Individuals start to reappear, their stories intermingle and relationships reveal themselves (spouses, lovers, parents, children). However, the chain of coincidence starts to strain after a while – who should walk into a shop at the end but an unexpected character we’ve already met? Who else would be in the cab that conveniently appears but the driver we already know? The music helps greatly in smoothing the rapid flow from one vignette to another, but even that becomes rather overbearing after a while.
With parts given so little room to develop, excellent character playing makes up for a lot, as do a few sour laughs, but one still cannot shake the impression that this is a dazzling construction of no special purpose. Compared to Ashkan, for example, the scope implies something more like universal significance (or at least a kind of city portrait) but ends up being too hermetic to convince on that sort of level.
Very few new characters are introduced after the first dizzying round of vignettes and the point seems to be less the inter-connectedness of human existence than life’s absurdity (very Eastern European, granted): a series of financial transactions, wherein a child’s life must be bought and another’s sex can be, violent death (usually by car) can strike at any moment, and tomorrow will be no different or meaningful than today.