Polish Requiem

in 21st Sofia International Film Festival

by Massimo Lechi

Jan P. Matuszynski’s The Last Family (Ostatnia Rodzina), which won the Special Jury Award at this year’s Sofia International Film Festival, is one of the most impressive first feature films of the decade. Set in Warsaw between 1977 and 2005, it covers twenty-eight years in the life of Zdzislaw Beksinski (flawlessly played by veteran theatre actor Andrzej Seweryn), a surrealist painter now widely regarded as the greatest Polish visual artist of the Twentieth Century. The young director and his screenwriter Robert Bolesto worked on the documentation – mainly photos, tapes and VHSs – gathered over the years by the obsessive Zdzislaw, a reluctant patriarch who recorded his own family’s routines and conversations on a daily basis for almost fifty years. But despite the unsettling material on which is based, despite its peculiar characters and its setting, the movie is neither a sensationalistic biopic nor a mere period piece. It’s rather the cold and sharp depiction of a dysfunctional family, the tragic true story of a troubled group of unpleasant individuals utterly incapable of loving and understanding each other.

In fact, apart from few brief outdoor scenes (and a riveting plane crash sequence), this superbly crafted drama takes place entirely in two small family apartments located in a grey housing estate. Stuck between walls covered with LPs and paintings, Kacper Fertacz’s camera films the complicated dynamics of the turbulent clan, which comprises the sophisticated and emotionally detached artist, his melancholic wife Zofia (a touching Aleksandra Konieczna), their restless son Tomasz (an excellent Dawid Ogrodnik) and two old and frail catholic grandmothers (Zofia Perczynska and Danuta Nagórna).

What strikes and disturbs in this powerful debut is Matuszynski’s approach to storytelling. Like a patient entomologist fascinated by the behavior of weird and mysterious insects, he focuses totally on the conflicts between his unstable characters. On screen, years go by. Time is an implacable litany: the Beksinskis suffer, fight, hurt each other, eat, age and eventually die, leaving behind bitterness and blood smears. The two grandmothers fade away, Zofia is killed by a fatal stroke in 1998, Tomasz (who was a popular journalist and radio host in the 80s-90s) commits suicide in 1999, while Zdzislaw is assaulted and stabbed by the son of his caretaker in February 2005. Outside the frame, the world changes and the Communist regimes of the Eastern Bloc choke to death, but nobody seems to care – not even the viewer, who slowly spirals into gloom. Nothing is explained, neither Zdzislaw’s complex art nor his abrupt murder.

In the end, Matuszynski succeeds in turning the Beksinskis’ claustrophobic and fetid microcosm into a psychoanalytic crucible, into an exhausting kammertragödie where the unreachable Uranus sees poor Cronus mutilate himself and a depressed Oedipus leaves Jocasta cry alone in the kitchen. The Last Family is a requiem for distorted archetypes.

Edited by Christina Stojanova