The Last Family (Ostatnia rodzina) (15th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival) Review
The Last Family (Ostatnia rodzina) is based on a true story. Zdzisław Beksiński (Andrzej Seweryn), a surrealist painter of some reputation, is first seen in 2005, talking to his friend and confidant Piotr Domochowski (Andrzej Chyra). Then we flash back to 1977 and Zdzisław moving in to the Warsaw apartment block he has lived in ever since, along with his wife Zofia (Aleksandra Konieczna) and both their mothers. Also living with them is their son Tomasz (Dawid Ogrodnik), then just coming out of his teens. Tomasz is a deeply troubled person, with a suicide attempt not far away, unable to sustain a relationship. At least his fear of flying is justified when he boards a plane having predicted it will crash...and it does. While his father's career as a painter flourishes, Tomasz becomes a radio broadcaster and a DJ.
The film covers twenty-eight years in the family's life, taking up to where we started. What is constant is Zdzisław's incessant, indeed compulsive, need to chronicle the whole of his life and that of those around him. At first he uses a still camera, but later he acquires a camcorder so VHS tapes become the medium of choice. The Last Family recreates several of the family videotapes by shooting on genuine VHS camcorders, presenting them in 4:3 while the rest of the film is in Scope, shot digitally. There's plenty here on whether Zdzisław prefers to live his life at one remove through a camera lens, when his family is not far away from dysfunctional. In many ways Zofia (a strong performance from Aleksandra Konieczna in the film's least showy principal role) is the glue that holds the family together. When she learns she is terminally ill, one of the last things she does is to make sure that her husband knows how to operate the washing machine. Meanwhile, Tomasz flits from career to career, finding some success in music. This shows that western music penetrated then-Communist Eastern Europe more than you might think, as Tomasz namedrops both 70s and 80s prog (Genesis, Marillion) as well as 80s synth pop (Yazoo, Ultravox), His tastes are wider than many others' would have been: the western fans of both types of music would quite likely not be on speaking terms with each other at the time. The end credits are accompanied by a prime piece of 80s indie, This Mortal Coil's version of “Song to the Siren”. At another time, we see Tomasz provide a live Polish voiceover translation of the then-recent Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me.
The years pass, and the family's ups and downs are covered, in terms both funny and, where it needs to be, poignant. It's clear that not everyone welcomes this thorough chronicling of their business, especially when Domochowski publishes his book on the family. The film is anchored by fine performances from all the leads. It leads up to a jarring ending, but that's the ending that happened in life. We see some of the real videos just before the end credits, which gain the real and now-deceased Zdzisław Beksiński a camera-operator credit.
Time was that a film like The Last Family would have been picked up for the arthouse circuit where foreign-language films would normally play. Instead, shortly after its opening in Polish cinemas, it received a limited British release on the informal Polish-film circuit in Odeon cinemas around the country, but if you (as I did) missed it there, the Kinoteka gives you another chance to see this excellent film.
The Last Family shows on 18 March at 3.00pm at the Regent Street Cinema, London, as part of the 14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival.