The Rochester Polish Film Festival, sponsored by the University of Rochester's Skalny Center For Polish and Central European Studies, celebrates its 16th incarnation this year. The festival will be screening eight feature-length films, along with two shorts, at the Little Theatre (though Opening Night selection "Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir" will screen at the Dryden Theatre), each shining a spotlight on Polish culture in its myriad forms. Guests at this year's festival include director Ryszard Bugajski, actress Maria Mamona ("The Closed Circuit"), director Kordian Piwowarski, and poetry translator Anna Piwowarska ("Baczyski").
What follows is a selection of films from this year's line-up. All the films are in Polish with English subtitles unless otherwise noted. Visit the festival's website (rochester.edu/College/PSC/CPCES/events/fall13/pff13/pff013/films.html) for a complete schedule and list of events.
Based on real events which occurred in Poland in 2003, "The Closed Circuit" (Thursday, November 7, 7 p.m.) has the feel of a taut, 70's-era political conspiracy thriller as it follows an underhanded scheme by a corrupt group of government officials to wrest control of a recently established electronics company from its founders, by any means necessary. A manipulative district prosecutor Andrzej Kostrzewa (Janusz Gajos, in a chilling performance) leads the campaign, teaming up with high-ranking public officials, and convincing an ambitious junior prosecutor to file trumped-up charges of fraud and money laundering against the young entrepreneurs for what, the film gradually hints, are dubious personal reasons.
The screenplay, by Miroslaw Piepka and Michal S. Pruski, goes to occasionally ridiculous lengths to make it clear exactly how evil these men are, but director Ryszard Bugajski keeps things moving briskly, and the story is compelling enough that I was willing to overlook the film's more melodramatic tendencies.
In Andrzej Jakimowski's genial film "Imagine" (Friday, November 8, 7 p.m.) a young professor (charismatic English actor Edward Hogg) is hired to teach the children at a Portuguese institute for the blind. Blind himself, he subscribes to the philosophy that the visually impaired can be fully independent, advocating his pupils to use their remaining senses to become aware of their surroundings and ultimately walk without the assistance of a cane. His devil-may-care attitude rankles the school's administration, but his students find themselves inspired to venture out and take exhilarating new risks.
Mostly in English, Jakimowski's script combines aspects of a "Dead Poets Society"-esque inspirational teacher drama with a sensitive love story, as the professor catches the eye of a shy, pretty German patient at the school. The film manages to blend these familiar elements into something unique, that also feels authentic and treats its subject with an admirable respect. Also noteworthy is the impressive sound design that allows the audience to enter the mindset of a visually impaired person and see the world as they might experience it.
Acclaimed Polish jazz musician Micha Urbaniak acquits himself quite well in his first screen-acting role as Wodzimierz Starnawski, an elderly former professional clarinetist whose life is thrown into upheaval after his wife, Barbara, leaves him for another man, in the bittersweet family drama, "My Father's Bike" (Saturday, November 9, 6:30 p.m.). After Wodzimierz ends up briefly hospitalized, his son Pawe (Artur mijewski), a successful classical pianist, and teenaged grandson, Maciek, travel to see him.
Though Pawe wants nothing more than to dump his father off in a nursing home, Maciek, who lives with his mother and barely sees Pawe at all, convinces him otherwise. Instead, the trio end up setting out North, hoping to locate Barbara and convince her to come back home. Staying at a rental home while they search, the three generations of men immediately butt heads, unsure how to deal with one another now that they're suddenly under the same roof. Years of simmering hostilities and resentments are exposed, and the stage is set for some good old-fashioned familial healing. This might have all come across as a bit sappy, but happily, director Piotr Trzaskalski (along with co-writer Wojciech Lepianka) keeps a tight rein on the tone, adding a droll sense of humor and never allowing the film to descend into mawkishness.
Natalia (Magdalena Berus), the protagonist of writer-director Katarzyna Roslaniec's gritty "Baby Blues" (Sunday, November 10, 3 p.m.), is a self-involved 17-year-old struggling to raise an infant son, Antek, while remaining committed to her shockingly irresponsible lifestyle. After her own mother packs her bags and leaves town, Natalia is forced to try to make things work with the baby's slacker father, Kuba, despite the fact that neither one is cut out to be a parent. That the film works at all is largely thanks to authentic (if not exactly sympathetic) performances from its brave cast of first-time actors.