It Looks Pretty from a Distance

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For rough Polish rustics, a neighbor's property is fair game

Wilhelm Sasnal is an acclaimed Polish painter and comic strip artist, who in collaboration with his wife Anka has now made a (77-min.) feature following up on several short Super 8 films and his first feature Swineherd (2008). It Looks Pretty From a Distance (2011]) is a film that up close tends to look as harsh, rude, and disorganized as its human subjects, a group of sub-trailer park people living in rural Poland who live by collecting scrap metal and scavenging for other things and swim in a nearby river. Once again fimmakers, this time a couple of them, ask us to believe that life is nasty, brutish, and short, and seen not from a distance but up close, the life depicted here, . And so it is for Pawel (Marcin Czarnik), Mother Muraw (Elzbieta Okupska), Mirek Kotlarz (Piotr Nowak), Grandfather Kotlarz (Jerzy Lapinski), and -- should I go on? But if you are not Polish you will not be able to keep track of these names. "This is a difficult, irritating and unsettling film, which is exactly how it was supposed to be. It should not be ignored,” wrote (Zdzisław Pietrasik in Polityka.

In fact Polish critics have commented that this is a necessary film, which unveils certain dark Polish secrets, such as the plundering of Jewish property after the devastation of the Warsaw ghetto. But all admit that the minimal plot leaves much open to interpretation. Indeed the Sasnals, a husband and wife team who have art backgrounds reflected in a sensual feel for the physical milieu here, seem to assume too much on the part of the viewer, which may burden non-Poles more. They have filmed their somewhat brutish cast as if we already knew them, and given the paucity of dialogue, it can be hard, particularly for non-Poles, to tell what is going on.

It seems that Paweł, a fleshy, tall, scrap metal guy, wants to live with his girlfriend but the growing senility of his mother is an obstacle. His girlfriend lives with her parents and brother with the bitter knowledge that – when her father dies – his meagre belongings will go to her sibling leaving her with nothing.

Meager the possessions are for all the locals, and there's an unwritten law, apparently, that when someone vacates premises, his possessions are fair game. When Pawel disappears for an extended period without explanation, people keep snatching his stuff here and there, and then one night come in and take out everything, and make a bonfire of most of it in the back yard. They also finish off the chickens and the dog. When Pawel comes back, they won't let him return to living in his house. At this point Pawel may have fair cause to bring in the authorities, if there are any, and so somebody has to finish off Pawel off. There are hints that murdering each other was the custom as far back as the war, when some people drowned their own children and then themselves in the river. Locals tend to be unfriendly -- to each other -- and begrudge each other swimming privileged in the ill-fated river. They also like to smoke, drink bear, and smash car windows in preparation for cutting out the metal. Car parts? That would be too subtle for them, or useless to the country.

The point of the title is that while the characters live in rural squalor, the landscape is fairly lush. To call the the lensing "sumptuous cinematography" as one review does seems, however, a stretch -- or perhaps it is just that the squalor makes it hard to see the sumptuousness. But this does have the kind of raw, intense color you get from 16mm transferred to 35 mm, which this is, with some good handheld work. But the Sasnal's might benefit from greater polish in future in their scripting and editing. If this is a diamond in the rough, it is hard sometimes to see the diamond under the rough.

To search out a similar social and moral level one might think of this as a much too real and less humorous version of Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers. Katarzyna Taras of Stopklatka wrote, "It is not a movie about frustration but about selfless evil that may reveal itself in any time and space regardless of political system. "

Their film was nominated for a Tiger award at Rotterdam, and won the New Polish Film award at the 11th New Horizons Festival at Wrocław, Poland. Zsuzsanna Kiràly's online review seems a well-informed assessment and makes some useful comments on Wilhelm Sasnal's paintings. Lawrence Boyce has a review of the film in Screen Daily.

Apart from the Rotterdam and Polish festival presentations, It Looks Pretty from a Distance/Z daleka widok jest piekny is also included in the New Directors/New Films series at MoMA and Lincoln Center in New York (where it was screened for this review).