Cambridge Film Festival #4: Rewers (The Reverse Poland 2009)

Sabine (Agata Buzek) and Bronislaw (Carson Daly) in Rewers

The last film that I saw at Cambridge deserves its own entry. Although I enjoyed all the films that I saw and found something interesting in each, none of the others particularly surprised me. Rewers was the exception. As the Sight and Sound writer Catherine Wheatley pointed out earlier in the day (see next blogpost), the best experience comes from entering a screening without any real expectation of what you are going to see. In this case, I had read the blurb, but then promptly forgotten it.

Rewers was the Polish entry for the 2010 Foreign Language Oscar. It is another of those Eastern European films exploring the communist period. We first see Sabine, a rather gawky young woman just turned thirty, with glasses in heavy frames and not very attractive clothes, in a cinema watching a newsreel celebrating Poland’s young male athletes who are presented bare-chested in formation displays. Sabine is clearly excited by what she sees. The setting is Warsaw in 1952 when the Polish state is still very much under the thumb (boot?) of Stalin and the secret police are everywhere. Sabine works as a poetry editor in a state publishing house and she lives with her mother and grandmother in a comfortable flat in an old apartment block. Her brother, an artist, has an attic studio in the same block. Sabine’s mother and grandmother come from the petit-bourgeoisie (they ran a chemist’s shop before the war) are therefore suspect according to the prevailing ideology. Sabine’s brother is reckless as an artist. She herself refers not having fought in the Warsaw uprising but confesses that she wishes she had. The various attitudes towards surveillance are effectively summed up when the family find an old gold coin with the inscription ‘Liberté‘. Gold is supposed to be handed in to the authorities, but Sabine insists on hiding it – by daily swallowing the coin!

The two older women work to find Sabine a husband. She is clearly keen for some sexual experience, but not with the unattractive men who her mother invites to the flat. One evening she meets Bronislaw, a dashing young man who saves her from a pair of thugs who accost her. He looks like the real deal – but things don’t turn out as Sabine expects.

The Polish pressbook calls this film a ‘comedy’ and there are certainly comic moments, some of them not dissimilar to the social comedy moments in the Czech films of the 1960s. But it is dark comedy and it is played out in the context of the real social difficulties of living in a Stalinist state. From my point of view, I found the film fascinating and enjoyable because of the central characters and the interplay amongst the family members. I’m still not quite sure what the title refers to. In some ways ‘Obverse’ would be a better title if the intention is to present Sabine as a surprising character who turns out to be not what we expect. My lack of understanding probably explains why I didn’t really appreciate the modern sequences in which we see an 80 year-old Sabine waiting at the airport. These didn’t work for me, partly because the actors attempt to ‘act’ being old. This rarely works. I’m not suggesting that the acting performances are poor, but rather that when we have been watching the actors play close to their actual ages, we can see through the make-up and costumes to a younger person attempting to move slowly etc. On an aesthetic level, I much prefer the 1950s in the film, shot in beautiful black and white CinemaScope – whereas the ‘present’ is shot in murky colours and appears drab. As well as the wonderful cinematography, the music in the film is also important with jazz as the decadent Western music beloved of the intelligentsia and a tango providing one of the highlights of the film.

I’ve watched a few Polish films over the last few years and I’m struck with the frequent appearance of the national stereotype – Poles in movies drink themselves swiftly into oblivion. It happens so often that I feel it must be ‘true’. It occurs again in this movie. Having said that I think that this is the best Polish movie I’ve seen for a while and it deserves to get a UK release – I hope someone has bought it.

A flavour of the film comes through the Polish trailer (no subtitles) but be warned it hints at spoilers for some of the surprises in the film.

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