Friday, March 23, 2012
The Christening (orig. Chrzest) 
IMDb listing -
Filmweb.pl listing (PL orig, ENG trans)
The Christening (orig. Chrzest) [IMDb] [FPL] [ENG trans]directed by Marcin Wrona [IMDb] [FPL][ENG trans] and written by Dariusz Glazer, Grzegorz Jankowski and Grazyna Trela is an excellent if supremely sad Polish film set in contemporary Poland which played recently at the 15th Annual European Union Film Festival being held at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago throughout March, 2012.
Mid-late 20-something Michal (played by Wojciech Zielinski [IMDb][FPL][ENG-trans]) seems to have made it. He has a successful (glass) business, lives in a high rise apartment in a modern section of town at apparently the outskirts of Warsaw. He's married to a beautiful, young wife Magda (played by Natalia Rybicka [IMDb][FPL][ENG-trans]) who loves him. Together they have a newborn son who they're getting baptized. Michal's invited his childhood friend Janek (played by Tomasz Schuchardt [IMDb][FPL][ENG trans]), who's just finishing up military service, to be his newborn son's godfather. When Janek arrives, Michal takes him to the roof of the apartment complex where he is living and with pride points in every direction saying that his glass windows are in every building around.
By all appearances, this should be a happy time. But of course it is not ... because it becomes progressively evident that Michal's life is _still_ just a "house of cards." Soon, as in a terrible nightmare everything starts to fall apart.
An American viewer may really be shocked by the film's trajectory: How could one make a movie where by midway through the film all that's left for the viewer to wonder is whether the movie is going to end "merely moderately terribly" or "full throttle 'dear God will this really end in the worst possible way' terribly?"
But then this film comes from Poland (folks, welcome to Eastern Europe...), where even when World War II or the Communist era are no longer present or even referenced directly, the psychic scars clearly remain.
Before returning to the story, a few words here should be said about the technical quality of the film which I believe is superlative. Much if not all of the movie is filmed with handheld cameras. But the handhelds appear to be used with purpose. When the camera is "unsteady" it's because the characters themselves are "unsteady." Then there's a scene where a character appears to be looking around trying to get his bearings. The camera mimicking his point of view is _also_ jerking and the image it's recording is also blurred until it does settle on something and both the character and the camera have found focus.
Then kudos to the editors of this film. This is a film where every single scene comes to fit into the story, even the beginning two scenes that initially seem to have only tangential importance to the story. Arguably they become key.
The film is then largely set in a concrete and glass highrise subdivision presumably at the edge of Warsaw. These kind of subdivisions (though of a much blander variety) were infamous during the Communist era. Even if this one appeared to be a 'newer' one, with "more glass / less concrete" it still gave off the impression of cold. Even Michal's and Magda's apartment, modern as it appeared with its white walls, glass and stainless steel, was still strikingly empty of almost any kind of furniture and decor. The outsides and walls of these buildings were now spotlessly clean and with all the glass far more open than before. However, inside the apartments remained largely hollow. Even the Church where eventually the Christening (Baptism) takes place was white, glassy and spacious. While there were more people in that scene (and the one following at the reception) because naturally members of both Michal's and Magda's families were invited/came to the Baptism, the space again felt half-heartedly empty. It was only at the small reception afterwards that available space seemed finally to be full -- with relatives, a musician playing a cello (never the happiest of instruments...), food and waitresses. All this obviously "sets a mood," and makes a statement perhaps about "modern life" or the "modern ideal" (in Poland) today. And yet, as I mention above, that ideal clearly unravels as the film progresses.
Finally and returning somewhat back to the story, I found some some very strong resonances in The Christening to some American films of both distant and recent past. The Godfather  is perhaps the most obvious. After all, both of these films are built (perhaps surprisingly) around the Christian/Catholic Sacrament of Baptism. Streetcar Named Desire  is another film that comes to mind. I always thought of the Kowalski character in that play/film to be something of a caricature of a young Polish man (and a rather negative one at that). Yet, Janek in this film could be Kowalski's cousin or nephew and is not being portrayed in a clearly negative way. Indeed, arguably Janek's character takes on characteristics of another character played by Marlon Brando (who played Kowalski in the Streetcar), that of "coulda been somebody" boxer Terry Malloy in On the Water Front , Terry Malloy having to have to "step up" in a gut-wrenching crisis after much time of being dismissed as literally a "nobody." Thematically, The Deer Hunter  also comes to mind because while both films invoked sacraments (rites of passage) that are supposed to be happy occasions, in both cases these passages appear to be toward darkness and tragedy rather than toward happiness and a more normal adulthood. Finally, Inception  comes to mind because The Christening does have the feel of a dream "falling apart." In Inception, dreams only fell apart as the characters within them discovered that they were walking in a dream world. In The Christening, the whole movie feels like the nightmare of someone not fully believing that (after perhaps years of struggle) he's actually succeeded. Instead, he finds himself trapped in/by his past and his whole world progressively crashes around him.
There is really much more to say about this film, especially about its Godfather  resonances. But I fear that if I were to push that further, I'd give away too much of the story. I would like to leave the reader here with the opinion that this is a very intelligent film, that it is very very sad, and (I do have to warn parents on this) it is at times very, very violent. Will the makers of this film as well as the lead actors/actresses gain greater notoriety/fame in the future? I do not know, but I do think that all of them were truly excellent in this very, very sad film.
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