Body (Ciało) (14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival) Review

Life after death in Berlin-winner Body, showing today in the London Kinoteka Polish Film Festival.

Małgorzata Szumowska (born 1973) has had films shown in the UK before now: the French-made Elles had a British cinema release (admittedly, the sexual content may have been a selling point there) and is available on Blu-ray and DVD. 2013’s In the Name of… (W imię…), which has a claim to be, along with the same year’s Floating Skyscrapers (Płynące wieżowce), Poland’s first gay-themed film, is available on DVD. A year ago at the time of writing, Body (Ciało – both English and Polish titles appear on screen, separated by an oblique) jointly won Szumowska the Silver Bear for Best Direction at the Berlin Film Festival, yet appears not to have a British distributor, not even on the informal circuit of cinemas in Polish communities in British cities that some Polish films are shown on. That’s a pity as it’s an excellent film.

We’re in present-day Warsaw. Janusz, a widowed attorney (Janusz Gajos) lives with his daughter Olga (Justyna Suwała). Neither of them have got over the death of his wife and her mother: he takes refuge in alcohol and she is anorexic. Olga is in regular therapy sessions run by Anna (Maja Ostaszewska). Meanwhile, Anna discovered an ability to communicate with the dead after the cot death of her young son several years before and believes that Janusz’s wife is trying to contact him from beyond the grave…

The absurdist tone is set before the opening credits when a man is found hanged. He’s cut down, pronounced dead at the scene…and climbs to his feet and walks away. If that doesn’t sound dark enough, there’s a subplot where Janusz has to deal with a case where a woman gives birth in a railway station lavatory and kills the baby. This thread in Szumowska and Michał Englert’s script is left in the air somewhat, though it does let Anna make a pro-choice argument. (Abortion is a vexed issue in strongly Catholic Poland, and is currently illegal except in particular circumstances.) Whether Anna really can speak to the dead – or see them, as she does at certain points in the film – or whether it’s all in her mind, is left up to you to decide. But what impresses about Body is its command of tone, at times blackly comic without losing compassion. It also manages to take a song which, to British ears has long since become trite (“You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel, as sung by Gerry and the Pacemakers, a 1963 UK Number One and football stadium perennial) and give it a real emotional punch when it appears on the soundtrack towards the end of the film. It’s beautifully acted, and Szumowka’s visual sense, while not drawing too much attention to itself, is quite apparent, particularly in the group-therapy scenes, mostly whites and pale colours, with only the oranges of Anna’s outfits standing out.

Body shows on 10 April at 8.20pm at the Regent Street Cinema, London, as part of the 14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. Further UK showings and distribution are to be confirmed.


Updated: Apr 10, 2016

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