During its two week run at the Cinematheque, the European Union Film Festival (EUFF) dazzled cinema-goers with a variety of international films. There were some absolute gems in the mix and some unfortunate flops, but the festival was a success, overall.
Poland’s official submission to the festival was Gods, a feature from director Lukasz Palkowski. The film was a fictionalized version of events which took place in Poland in the 1980s, following a young cardiovascular surgeon at a time when heart transplants were considered entirely too risky and taboo to perform. Tomasz Kot plays Zbigniew Religa, the first surgeon to successfully perform a heart transplant in Poland. The film is dramatic in its delivery, and gripping in its subject matter. Tension between Religa and his staunch older colleagues is clearly at the heart of the film’s story, reflected in the cinematography and sound design. However, I found the camerawork to be distracting at times, due to its wildly changing approach. Long takes and shaky, hand-held shots were sometimes used in the same scene, which might have been a technique to reflect the film’s conflict but was mostly a disruption to my viewing experience. My other qualm with this particular flick was its climax and ending. We watch as Religa descends into a disastrous fit of professional pressure and personal disgrace, as each heart transplant fails and the public loses whatever support they had for him and his work. All of the drunken anger and self-loathing unfolds unceremoniously on screen, until finally and suddenly, a successful operation is performed. However, this transition from catastrophe to triumph is so abrupt, and is followed so quickly by the rolling credits, that I nearly missed it. It took me a moment to realize that he had achieved his lofty goal after all. Ultimately, this film was a hopeful drama with an intriguing subject, but lacked consistency and final gravitas.
The feature from Estonia was a much more subtle and skilled take on historical events. The Fencer, directed by Klaus Haro, was a delight to watch and felt authentic on all accounts. It tells the story of a former professional fencer, Endel Nelis, who, during Soviet occupation, hides away in a small Estonian town to avoid capture by Stalin’s secret police. He takes on the role of gym teacher to the town’s school children, and fosters a earnest relationship with them through the teaching of his old sport, despite the objections of the school’s rule-following principle. This film was a quiet and steady account of life during a time fraught with political suspicion. I felt a sincerity in the film’s delivery, both in the actors’ performances and in the visual vocabulary. I felt privy to the struggle of living with the burden of war and political transgression, and was very much taken by the subtleties between the children and their teacher. The cinematography was understated, conveying the intimate relationships between characters through close-up and static shots. However, during the film’s screening there was a short interruption, due to a few moments of disc trouble. One of the scenes in the last quarter of the film was skipped through and the theatre lights came on for a quick minute while the problem was addressed, but nothing of critical importance was missed and the screening carried on without error afterwards. Despite that slight snag, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and its affectionate portrayal of a very difficult period in European history. It was an intimate account of the values of patience and steady resolve during a time of oppression.