Director/Screenwriter: Piotr Dumała
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It is not Kieślowski, Wajda, or Pasikowski who are the most sought-after, loved, and welcome of Polish filmmakers at almost all of the world’s festivals. It is Piotr Dumała.
The renown of premier animator Piotr Dumała may not have reached many English-speaking countries, but it should. My first film of the PFFAmerica, and my first Dumała film, was a deep—very deep—experience. Prefaced by an impressionistic, almost experimental animation of snatched moments and the ever-grinding gears of time that, for want of knowing its real title, I’ll call When Father Is Six Feet Under, Dumała has created a disorienting, mournful prologue for this, his first live-action feature film.
The first of the many, many gorgeous images in this black-and-white film is of a tree lizard clinging vertically to a tree, just barely distinguishable from the bark on which it hides. A closer look shows the lizard scrambling higher, away from prying eyes. We are directed to the ground, as a scruffly-looking old man (Stanisław Brudny) and his equally scruffy companion (Mariusz Bonaszewski) stalk through the mist-draped forest, the old man confidently leading the way, the younger man crouching, looking warily around, intemittently clinging to the large leather bag slung over the old man’s shoulder.
We next see the two men, clean-shaven this time, in a small room. The younger man is holding and sponge-bathing the older man’s back. We can see when the younger man has to secure the older man to the chair with a leather belt so that he can wash the front that the older man is either paralyzed or too weak to sit up himself. This protracted scene of a very thorough scrubbing ends when the younger man asked the older man to try to hold onto him as the younger man lifts him onto the bed he has meticulously prepared. Clearly, from the loving care the younger man shows, he is tending to his father.
We are given no background on these two men—why they live in rather primitive circumstances we assume must be in the forest, whether they have neighbors, what they do to get by. All of our attention is focused on the project that preoccupies them both—the father’s impending death. The film shifts back and forth between the pair’s journey through the forest and the son tending to his father—the former occurring in the old man’s thoughts and dreams, the latter the attempts by the son to keep his father with him. In one scene, the son tries to feed his father. After two mouthfuls of gruel, the old man falls asleep. The son fusses with the food, putting the pot over the wood-burning stove several times, thinking that it is not warm enough, and returning to his father’s bedside to try to feed someone who has clearly gone past the desire to eat and lays asleep, truly suspended between life and death.
The forest scenes have subtle references to the Torah, or to some other mythic symbology. The father stalks, kills, and filets a snake, much to his son’s disgust. They make camp for the evening, and the father unwraps the snake meat and fits it on a fork to cook in the blazing campfire—looking a bit like a burning bush—he has built. The son reluctantly takes two pieces, but pushes away the third. It lands in the fire; the father fishes it out and devours it. This seems an allusion to the tree of knowledge—the son does not wish to fully awaken to his father’s impending death, but the father is ready. In the next scene, the father shaves himself with a knife, views his image in the river, and goes back to slay his son. He builds a huge pyre for his dead son and sets it ablaze; we awaken from this scene to find that the father has died.
I thought of the sacrifice of Isaac in this scene. The forest scenes leading up to this final rejection of his son show him hitting and talking harshly to the younger man, as though he were impeding the old man’s journey. When the father completes the sacrifice, so to speak, he has truly let go of what was dear to him in life and given himself over to God.
There is a harshness to this film that I know from experience accurately replicates the feelings loving children have when a dying parent turns inward, indifferent to them and their feelings. I commend Dumała for not giving us the candy-coated deaths mainstream films traffick in and thereby preparing us realistically for death the way it really happens for most of us. The lush black-and-white photography—something I’m starting to expect from Polish films after seeing Time to Die—is evocative and absolutely perfect for this film. The spare score and dialogue almost seem unnecessary, but lend some details about the relationship of father and son that help flesh out the picture somewhat. I’ve seen other rich evocations of the passage to death—the aforementioned Time to Die and a psychedelic film from Mexico called Vera. For my money, however, it will be a long time before any filmmaker tops this auspicious feature debut from Piotr Dumała. l