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Seattle Polish Film Fest opens with strongly

The Seattle Film Festival got off to a flying start on Friday, April 27 with a brace of strong films at its handsome new venue, the McCaw Theater in the Seattle Center cultural complex. The opening film, the touching story of a priest with AIDS, "He who has never Lived" (Kto nigdy nie zyl), is the directing debut of iconic Polish actor Andrzej Seweryn, and this was followed up by "Palimpset", a nightmarish study of a Warsaw Police inspector on the verge of a nervous breakdown -- with heavy echoes of David Lynch. Both films are showcase roles for two of Poland's hottest leading actors, Michal Zebrowski (the priest) and Andrzej Chyra (the psychotic cop) respectively. Andrzej Seweryn, director of the priestly film, is himself a veteran actor of the highest echelon in Poland, and has only recently decided to take a turn behind the cameras.

Seweryn (born 1946) has been seen on the Polish screen since 1975, often figuring in the films of name directors (Eight films with Wajda and others with such leading directors as Agnieszka Holland and Jerzy Hofman), and he has been a top star of the French Comedie Francaise for several decades after taking up residence in the French capital to escape the strictures of Communism. Having mastered the language flawlessly, he is one of the very few non-native Frenchmen ever to make it to the top of that venerable theatrical institution. He has often been seen in long running Polish TV series, was chosen by Spielberg for a role in "Schindler's List", and has appeared in many French films. In short, Seweryn is a major actor of stage and screen, large and small, in both Poland and France. As for involvement in church connected roles, Seweryn starred in "Primate", the biopic of anti-Communist Polish religious leader Stefan Wyszynski, which was a fair success in fervently Catholic Poland just three years ago.

. In "the current film Seweryn calls upon popular leading man and matinee idol Michal Zebrowski to break with the macho mold which has characterized most of his (largely action) films until now, and enter new, sensitive territory. In “He who has never lived” Zebrowski is a handsome young priest, Jan, overseeing a flock of outsider kids addicted to drugs and Rock and Roll music. His superiors (one is played by Seweryn himself) are not happy with Jan’s attempts to bring this flock of young riff-raff under church protection and decide to ship him off to Rome to put an end to his crusading stance in favor of undesirables. To the consternation of all concerned, Jan is found to have mysteriously contracted AIDS. He is not a homosexual, nor is he himself a drug user, so the source of the life threatening affliction could be traced to a tour of duty he did in Africa. In any case, whatever the cause, he’s got the fatal syndrome.

Instead of Rome, the elders agree to let him take refuge in a monastery to live out whatever life remains to him. End Part I. Part II – Jan in the monastery. Jan’s faith is shaken (why me? – what did I do to deserve this!) and he devotes himself to gardening while growing a thick reddish beard and the hair to go with it. His co-monastics notice his growing alienation from the prayer routine and excessive devotion to his parsley patch. Two of his former charges, a young couple, both junkies, she pregnant, come to visit and try to lure him back to Warsaw where he is so badly needed. Others try to convince him not to throw in the sponge – to keep taking his medication and come back to “active duty”. No soap. Jan has had it. One night during a driving thunderstorm he sets fire to his garden stash and takes off into the night. End Part II.

Part II – Jan on the road, and his redemption by the love of a lovely young maiden. After almost running him off the road three people in a van, a lawyer on vacation , his wife (or girlfriend) and another lovely young lady pick him up and take him in. They’re on the way to a big concert by top pop star Robert Janowski, (a real, aging pop star playing himself) but they have to stop off a few times on the way. Well, the single girl soon becomes attached to the handsome hairy hobo they’ve rescued from the storm – at least he looks like a hobo but he seems to be harboring a major tragedy. Anyway, Jan hangs out with this friendly trio and when the big scene comes, in which the lovely unattached Marta (Joanna Sydor) drops her drapes and drapes herself nakedly all over Jan – he comes out with his double-barrowed secret: “I’m sick”, says Jan –“I have AIDS!” – But this does not stop Marta – she’s much too hot to trot to let a life threatening virus deter her from consummating her towering passion – even if it’s suicidal. But, although Jan is also about to get carried away himself – he hits her with the second barrel –“I’m a priest!” – Wow! – This is too much even for impassioned Marta, and she sags to the floor defeated.

The priestly revelation brought a chuckle at both screenings of the film I attended – but it was not an expression of derision – more of sympathy – a momentary break from the pathos. Because in spite of the soap operatic gyrations of the script, Zebrowski – who bears a striking resemblance to the young Paul Newman in this picture – invests the Jan character with such depth of feeling that you just can’t help going with him, and doe-eyed Joanna Sydor emanates feelings that are almost unbearably touching. Without going into detail, let it be said that everything turns out for the best, and the last movement of this three part invention ends in an upbeat, even comical mood with Jan shorn of his locks and back shepherding his flock, to the strains of Janowski’s R&R band in front of Warsaw’s central station. This is the kind of movie cynics might call overly “hoakey”, but novice director Seweryn clearly knows how to tug at a heartstring and put a story together. The photography is visually luscious and the music is refreshing. All in all a tender love story with lots of little touches to make for a rewarding evening at the flickers.

If the opening film was tender, touching, and uplifting, Konrad Niewolski’s “Palimpset”, the story of a psychotic detective, which followed, was a dark, dreary, frontal assault on the senses, which nearly drove me out of the theater at several points, but I couldn’t leave without finding out how it comes out -- and even after watching the disjointed ending, I’m still not sure how it did come out! The title of the film, “Palimpset” – which is explained as some kind of ancient parchment which can be overwritten – is already a warning that we’re in for trouble. Andrzej Chyra, who is the kind of a villainous character you can’t take your eyes off of , as a detecive investigating the murder by “defenestration” (that’s subtitle gibberish for “pushed out of a window”) is in just about every dark scene, often in stark facial closeup, and always hypnotic.
It may end up that he himself did it during one of his alcohol induced blackouts, but this picture is not about “whodunnit” – it’s all about style with a capital ‘S’. The style is dark-energetic-nightmare-confusion – using the wide screen and dark shadows to maximum effect to re-create the maelstrom which seems to be going on in the protagonist’s decaying mind. This is mostly a violent man’s film, but there is one very sexy woman in there (Magdalena Cielecka), who appears at the midway point as some kind of double-dealing hooker for whom the psychotic cop at one point proclaims his undying love – and then she reappears at the end as the devoted loving wife of the shell-shocked investigator, who is now all but catatonic in a mental institution. I did not like this film – in fact, I hated it – like poison – but I had to admit that this director has all kinds of ideas on how to exploit the medium to create shocking effects. I just hope he uses his talent for a different purpose in the future – not to give his audience shock treatment. At the same time Chyra’s performance is a kind of tour-de-force if you can factor it out from the murk. Andrzej Chyra is probably the most riveting actor on the Polish screen today, even if he doesn’t always rivet you to your seat in a very pleasant way.

The entire festival is set to screen a total of nine films over the coming week – with days of no screenings in between because of hall availability. While this represents a mere slice of current Polish cinema, it is nevertheless an interesting slice, offering some insight into what is going on in this most important of East-European film industries today. The main support for this mini-festival, for that is after all what it is, is the sister city association which exists between the Polish port city of Gdynia and Seattle, our most important northwest port. SGSCA (Seattle Gdynia Sister City Association) has been in existence since 1993, a most fortunate connection as Gdynia is the home of the annual Polish film week where the entire year’s production of the country is presented each autumn. The stated goal of the festival here is to provide the local Polish community with a direct connection to its important home film culture by bringing both films and filmmakers here to visit. The second goal is to share Polish culture, as portrayed in Polish cinema, with the greater Seattle Community. It looks like festival director Greg Plichta (a native of gdynia!) and his gang are doing a good job on both counts.

Alex Deleon, Seattle

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