Jacek (Mateusz Kościukiewicz) lives in a small Polish town. He's easy-going, listening to heavy metal - Metallica especially - and hanging out with his girlfriend Dagmara (Małgorzata Gorol). He works by day in the construction crew of a giant statue of Christ being erected just outside the town, a statue intended to be even taller than the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Jacek thinks he'll go somewhere more exciting, London maybe, though with Brexit maybe that moment has passed.
However, one day, he suffers a fall. Miraculously he survives but his injuries require surgery and he receives a face transplant, Poland's first. This makes him newsworthy, with even the mother of the man whose face Jacek has received wanting to meet him. Looking entirely different, reliant on expensive immunosuppressant drugs, with speech difficult, Jacek tries to go back to his old life. But he cannot.
Although Mug (Twarz) is fiction, the statue in this film is inspired by a real one: Christ the King measures fifty-two metres high and resides on a hill outside Świebodzin in western Poland. It was completed in 2010 and is indeed the tallest statue of Jesus in the world. The film, written by Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert (the two are respectively the film's director and cinematographer) might seem to be one of a long line of films dealing with facial disfigurement – The Elephant Man, Mask, many others – but it's marked out by a complete lack of sentimentality. In fact, its targets lie elsewhere.
Szumowska has had form in dealing with troubled aspects of Polish society before: with In the Name of... she made one of Poland's first gay movies, and in Body (which, like Mug, won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival) she deals in part with the vexed subject of abortion, currently illegal in Poland with certain exceptions. The blackly comic tone of those films carries on to this one. Before the title card comes up, we see a large store having an underwear sale. That's not one selling lingerie, but one where the public have to undress down to their underwear before they can take part in the mad scramble for bargains. Jacek walks away with a large-screen TV.
The town where Jacek lives is a particularly conservative part of the country, with that giant statue not the only sign of the strong influence of the Catholic church. It's not a place welcoming of outsiders, particularly not if they're Jewish, Muslim, Gypsy or Traveller. Jacek's brother-in-law (Robert Talarczyk) is given to some quite racist jokes which will not be repeated here. And now, having been part of this community since birth, Jacek has become an outsider himself. His sister Iwona (Agnieszka Podsiadlik) is one of the few people clear-sighted enough to see what is happening. Szumowska and Englert emphasise this in the look of the film, with many shots sharp at the centre of the Scope frame, blurring towards the peripheries, mimicking human vision.
Unrecognisable under heavy makeup for two thirds of the running time, Kościukiewicz (who is the director's husband) gives a remarkable performance. Mug confirms Szumowska once again as a leading filmmaker, not just in Poland but in Europe as a whole. It's a film which says a lot, not just about Poland but Europe in general, today.
Mug plays the ArteKino Festival runs online between 1-31 December 2018 and is released in UK cinemas on 7 December.