The Santa Barbara Film Festival’s Eastern Bloc strand throws up an interesting array of films from former communist countries, each of Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania et al having their own distinct – and usually skewed and blackly humourous – national personality. Poland’s official Oscar submission this year is Boris Lankosz’s Rewers and it strikes me as being particularly Polish, not simply in its post-Warsaw uprising atmosphere (it’s largely set in 1952) and its seamless integration of newsreel footage into the warm black and white narrative (more effective even than in Vincere) but also in its matter-of-fact macabreness and unsettling technique.
The story centres around three generations of women: bespectacled bird-like Sabina (Agata Buzek) is a poetry editor and lives in an apartment with her mother and bedridden grandmother. These last two fuss over Sabina’s finding a man to give her children to support her in her old age and arrange an amusing soiree with a bookkeeper who proves drunkenly unsuitable. But walking home one evening on a shadowy cobbled street she’s rescued from muggers by an almost literal knight in shining armour, except his armour is a trenchcoat and he barely pauses in his cigarette smoking to throw a punch. This is Bronislaw (Marcin Dorocinski), handsome, stubbled and very occasionally from a high side angle a dead ringer for Bogie in that trenchcoat. He’s mysterious, charming and sweeps her off her feet, but is he all that he seems? Secret police are everywhere and a person must be careful. Much of the finer context I can only guess; when Sabrina cautiously admits to liking Symbolist poetry it sounds like a subversive stance, and there’s some fairly amusing business with a gold coin that must be hidden (not only is it forbidden gold, but bears the inscription “Liberty”..)
But the meat of the film is the relationship between the women, with no-one to rely on but one another; for all her apparent timidity, Sabrina knows her self-preservation priorities, the mother for all her clucking is no-nonsense when it comes to getting down to business and the grandmother’s the sharpest of the lot.
But what to make of the fact it opens in a movie theatre? It’s not a film about movies, or even stories or fantasy, though the scene shows us Sabrina’s undercurrent of strong sexual desire as she trembles before the naked torsos of an athletic display on the screen. Rather it hints at the prominence of cinematic technique that will be deployed in the storytelling; strange off-centre compositions will continually place emphasis on Sabrina, even if she is at the side of the frame, or simply present an off-balance image to unnerve. Skewed angles are similarly deployed and a whole extended sequence is shot with a blurry out of focus halo around a small centre of clarity to heighten the unsettling effect of a satisfyingly grotesque poisoning. Not all of this really works, obtrusiveness overwhelming the psychological effect; similarly, repeated flash-forwards to the present distract, and not simply because of the old age make-up.
When we finally settle in the present for the last couple of scenes of the film it turns out that Sabrina is waiting for her son (it’s no great surprise) and that the joke’s on him. Perhaps that is the case for many Polish people today whose parents lived through a time of secrecy and lies, but it feels like unnecessarily cruel irony. The film has proved very popular with festival audiences here, and is certainly funny, enjoyable and well-paced, but even putting aside the historical context, the film’s quirks of technique work against it, repeatedly reminding the viewer of itself and creating a distance fatal to emotional identification.