Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Letters to Santa (orig. Listy do M) [2011]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
FilmWeb.pl* listing

Letters to Santa (orig. Lysty do M)[IMDb][FW.pl]* (2011) directed by Slovenian director Mitja Okorn [IMDb][FW.pl]* screenplay by Karolina Szablewska [IMDb] [FW.pl]*, Marcin Baczynsik [IMDb][FW.pl]* with collaborating input of Sam Akina [IMDb] arrived at the 24th Polish Film Festival in America/Chicago (Nov 2-16, 2012) as far and away the most successful Polish language romantic comedy of all time and the longest running movie in Poland since the release of the Titanic (1997) [wiki.pl][eng-trans].

The film's success was certainly the result of Poland's film industry's willingness to take risks, among them being its willingness to hire a young Slovenian director (rather than a Pole) for the film (and a Slovenian who himself was finding his options limited in his home country) and then, as this Slovenian born director, Mitja Okorn [IMDb][FW.pl]*, explained after a screening of the film here at the festival, to take his advice and send the script to Hollywood for significant rewrite prior to filming.  Both of these decisions could have initially felt to be "ego bruising" but they clearly paid off.  In an interview with Gazeta.pl [Eng Trans], one of the film's stars Maciej Stuhr [IMDb] [FW.pl]* noted that the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk after having the film himself after it had been released declared it to be "the first (truly) successful Polish romantic comedy."  And yes, many Polish language reviews [wiki.pl][eng-trans] call the film a Polish romantic comedy along the lines of Love Actually [2003] and Notting Hill [1999].

That popular, critical and even political praise be said, the film, which if it was released for popular distribution in the United States would certainly be R-rated (like many recently American rom coms have been, including No Strings Attached [2011] and Friends with Benefits [2011] reviewed here) AND then built around four couples'/families' celebration of _Christmas_ in contemporary Warsaw is not without its issues / risks. I did ask the director during the Q/A following the screening of the film here, what the Catholic Church had to say about the film.  I actually did not mean it to be a particularly problematic question but was honestly interested in his response (in good part because I'd have no doubt that the CNS/USCCB's media office here in the United States would have given the film an "L" (limited audience) or more likely an "O" (morally offensive) rating as it gave the two recent American romantic comedies mentioned immediately above).  (I apologized to him afterwards saying that I really didn't mean to put him on the spot, just was interested).

I've generally taken the view that rom-coms tend to have have a "Wouldn't it be nice?"  daydream/Beach Boys quality to them and that while certainly the CNS/USCCB has its place in calling films on their portrayal apparently consequenceless pre-marital sex that if one sees these films along the daydreamy lines of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream and then watches them play through, that these films often come to the conclusions of Catholic Teaching anyway, notably that there is really no a such a thing as a consequenceless sexual relationship.  And in the tradition of the Anglo-American rom-coms, this film, Letters to Santa (orig. Lysty do M)[IMDb][FW.pl]*, ends by-and-large with an affirmation of family and marriage.  Still, I can't help but feel somewhat queasy about this particular film centering itself around the celebration of Christmas and I did find a number of informal concerns raised among lay Catholics as to whether the film would be appropriate for teenagers [Pl-orig] [Eng-trans] (I agree for reasons below that the film definitely isn't for young teens) and then a lament of a similarly blogging Catholic priest in Poland, Fr. Raphael Sorkowicz SChr [Pl-orig] [Eng-trans] over the _generally_ religionless nature of the film.  (The film _does_ feel more like New York than Warsaw).

And yet then the film was enormously popular in Poland, and certainly _not_ because it was some kind of an "anti-Christian secularist attack" on Christmas, but almost certainly because it was a remarkably well written, crafted and acted film.

So let's keep the number of screen portrayals of drunk/promiscuous "Saint Nicholases" to a minimum -- and let's remember that in Central/Eastern Europe, with the exception of the now thoroughly discredited Communistic "Ded Maroz" (Grandpa Frost), there presently really is no equivalent to the thoroughly secular "Santa Claus" of the United States.  When one shows (as this film does) a man dressed-up as Saint Nicholas having "bedboard breaking sex" with a woman (who's cheating on her husband besides...) it really approaches portraying the actual Saint doing that with that woman ... and hopefully one would see the obvious disrespect with that -- and focus on what I'm positive that Polish audiences (and really audiences throughout Central Europe/the Slavic world) would prefer, some really well crafted Brigid Jones, etc type romances instead.

Director Mitja Okorn [IMDb][FW.pl]* has clearly shown film makers across Central Europe / the Slavic world how to do this.  Honestly, let's now see a whole wave of well-crafted but also more positive rom-coms come out of this ;-)

* Running the FilmWeb.pl links through Google's Chrome browser allows automatic (machine, about 60-70% correct) translation of the Polish sites cited here.  Note that at the time of the writing of this review FilmWeb.pl had a somewhat annoying advertisement page at its gateway that appeared to defy getting around if one sought to use Google's translate.google.com service using the Firefox or Microsoft Explorer browsers.

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