Citizen (Obywatel) (13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival) Review
Jan Bratek (Jerzy Stuhr), president of Poland, is in the television studios to appear on a programme about his religious, specifically Catholic, beliefs. However, a freak accident – one letter from the television company's sign falls and shatters with part of it hitting his head – puts Jan into hospital. Lying with his head in plaster and in an induced coma, he slips back into his own and his country's past...
Jerzy Stuhr's hangdog face has been a familiar one over the years in Poland. He made his screen debut in 1971 in Andrzej Żuławski's The Third Part of the Night and has acted consistently on stage and on film in lead and character roles ever since. He worked regularly for Krzysztof Kieślowski (lead roles in Camera Buff and Dekalog X). He also starred in the science fiction comedy Sex Mission and for a generation of Polish children was the voice of Donkey in the local dub of Shrek and its sequels. Since 1994 on television and 1997 in the cinema, he has also directed. His 2000 film Big Animal was made from a Kieślowski screenplay. Citizen is his first feature film since 2007, a gap partly due to cancer treatment. He also shares the lead role with his son Maciej, as present and younger versions of the same character.
Citizen (Obywatel, which could be The Citizen or A Citizen, as the Polish language does not have articles – any could apply here) is a comedy, one with a gentler edge than some, but its satirical intent is without doubt, and will be especially more so to Poles, especially those old enough to remember many of the events depicted here. Jan's history does have correspondences with Stuhr's own. As Jan hovers between life and death, the flashbacks follow two sequences, often introduced by the approaching slow-motion image of a woman. We do find out who she is and her relevance to Jan's life, though not before she partially disrobes for him and the audience. At first Jan remembers his life from 1989, with the first free elections in Poland, up to the present day and his agreement to do the fateful television interview. Jerzy Stuhr plays Jan in these scenes. We see how ideals slowly become compromised, at first with a landlady who proves herself as rapacious in capitalist times as the state was when the country was Communist. Jan works for a travel agent which goes bankrupt For much of the time, Jan stumbles into things and his life proceeds due to accident or indeed clumsiness. Then we go back in time, with Maciej Stuhr taking over the role, beginning with Jan's internment in 1981 when the country was under martial law, then back to 1968 and military training, taking us back to the Eighties via events on the world stage: Polish sporting triumphs in the 70s and the appointment of local man Karol Wojtyła as Pope (now Pope Saint) John Paul II. Finally, we see Jan as a child in a black and white 1953, in which he first comes to realise the extent of Polish anti-Semitism: the later love of his life is Jewish. It's a bit of a stretch to see Jan becoming President, so you do have to take that one on board.
Over the film's running time, Jan is seen as an Everyman, or an EveryPole at least. That's something Stuhr doesn't need to underline with the final shot, though that is what he does. However, both Stuhrs make Jan an engaging character we're happy to follow for an hour and three quarters, and the film has enough edge to avoid undue nostalgia.
Citizen is showing on 11 April at the ICA, London, as part of the New Polish Cinema strand of the 13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. A UK commercial release is to be advised.