Director/Co-Screenwriter: Gerwazy Reguła
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Once upon a time, there was a lady who was SO good that everywhere she went, the sun followed her and shined its light so strongly that nobody and nothing ever cast a shadow. Bad things happened, sometimes even to the good lady, but the sun, doing its job, was so bright, that no shadows could ever fall on the lady. And the lady had such a cute smile that everyone else just had to smile, too, and that made them feel better. And so the lady got everything she wanted, because she was SO good, and lived happily ever after.
The good lady in Earthly Paradise, Ela (Ilona Ostrowska)—you don’t suppose that could be short for Cinderella, do you?—is a single mom living in the small town in southern Poland where she was born and raised. She supports herself and her very cute, well-behaved son Damian (Przemsław Łaba) by working at a meat-packing plant, and lives with her invalid mother (Boźena Adamek) in the house in which she grew up. Ela is a culinary school graduate who dreams up recipes and writes them in an elaborately bound notebook to keep hope alive that one day she will be able to cook professionally. In a short dream sequence, we see her laying her table with elaborate salads, desserts, and other assorted goodies.
Ela has a best friend, Kasia (Aleksandra Woźniak); a very nice boss who amid massive layoffs, about which he is extremely apologetic, always keeps Ela on; and Mirek (Przemysław Sadowski), a garbage truck driver she flirts with every day at the plant dumpster. One day, Ela finds an injured hawk near a dam. She picks it up and pets it, and it miraculously flies off—in fact, it flies back and forth in front of Ela several times so we get the idea that it is completely cured. Later, when Mirek doesn’t show up at the dumpster and stands her up for a date, Ela tracks him down through his well-to-do father (Krzystof Stelmaszyk) to a hospital, where Mirek is dying of blood poisoning. She holds his hand, and he is cured. People start lining up at her house for faith healing. Ela is perplexed and embarrassed by this apparent divine gift she has been given. Or maybe it’s just that perky smile she never loses.
Earthly Paradise is a calorie-free dessert that depends so much on the likeability of its main character that it ignores everything else. We see Ela’s mother once, and then she conveniently dies so we can have a confrontation with the wicked sister who hasn’t visited mom and sis for 8 years and comes to the funeral to demand half of everything. We have this confrontation so that Mirek can stand up for Ela and Damian—we never see sis or her shot-drinking husband again. Kasia is beautifully played by Aleksandra Woźniak, who came out of a 10-year retirement for the role; she needn’t have bothered, as her unlucky character’s fate is to get hit by a truck. We don’t witness the accident, and she isn’t given a funeral. She’s just gone. Mirek is a cipher. An Iraq war veteran apparently with no demons at all, he returns to this tiny village mainly to be the handsome hunk Ela can fall in love with. There is a scene of him driving bumpily down a dirt road with some buddies in a three-car caravan. I had to ask the producer, Marta Plucińska, who did a Q&A after the screening, what the hell they were doing. It took a lot of fractured English and translation for her to tell me it was a joyride. O-kay. And Ela, a trained chef, NEVER COOKS, not even once, in this entire film.
It flabbergasted me to learn that this film was made within the mainstream Polish film industry for €4 million. That seems like enough money to shoot a few transitional scenes, develop at least a couple of the dozens of plot points this script throws our way, make these characters come to life instead of treating them like the pieces of meat the plant workers cut into cubes for purposes unknown, add a little shading. But, Plucińska, whose idea this was and who cowrote the script, really wanted that sun blazing at high noon 24/7. Bad things happen, but they are forgotten. Ela isn’t a cockeyed optimist like Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Truth is, we do want to spend time with her because she’s genuine, even if everything does just fall into her lap. It’s producer Plucińska and her proudly mainstream attitude—this is what Łódź is turning out these days, heaven help us—who’s the fake. l