"The Master" Throwing Knives on Eastern European Future By Marcelo Janot

in 23rd Miami International Film Festival

by Marcelo Janot

The Master (Mistrz), Polish film, directed by Piotr Trzaskalski.

The director — who also wrote the script together with Wojciech Lepianka — wanted to make a film about people pursuing their dreams. He focused on Eastern European characters searching for their places in the contemporary world. The film opens with a shot of a backyard in which fallen autumn leaves wave around a blind boy, and soon we meet a man known as “The Master”, a Russian knife-thrower of a circus, letting all the animals out of their cages and locking himself in. The next day he’s fired and decides to go on as a one-man circus touring in Poland’s countryside. But he wants more. He wants to reach Paris and be recognized as an artist, “like Chagall and Magritte”, as he says.

These first metaphors — the blind boy who feels the freedom waving in his face but can’t see what the future looks like, and the artist locked in a cage while the animals are free — these metaphors express Trzaskalski’s intentions to give subtle political statements. Later on, the bus-circus is joined by a prostitute rescued by the Master from being sexually abused by two men and a mysterious accordion player. They travel together enchanting people with the almost magical Master’s numbers with knives, until he achieves, if not his Parisian dream, then at least the capacity of levitating over sharpened swords, which seems to be much more like a supernatural power than an illusionist performance.

To score his goal on making his story believable, Trzaskalski got the precious help of two people: the cinematographer Piotr Sliskowski and the main actor, Konstantin Lavronenko. Everyone remembers Lavronenko’s remarkable performance as the father in The Return, the Russian film that won the Golden Lion at Venice and the FIPRESCI prize at Palm Springs. Again he plays the role of a tough man with no name, who has a very particular way of showing his feelings. But unlike the father’s muteness, the Master talks a lot, and Lavronenko has such a strong performance on screen that it’s quite impossible not to believe in him — what doesn’t happen with some of the other characters. Sliskowski contributes with astonishing cinemascope cinematography. It’s hard to believe that he shot those beautiful long travelings digitally, specially the lake scene where the boat is surrounded by fog, thus creating a compelling atmosphere.

Trzaskalski first feature, Edi, was awarded with the Ecumenical prize and the FIPRESCI prize in Berlin 2003. There, he started dealing with social issues about Eastern European outsiders, introducing some religious parables that could be related to Buddhism. In some way, he does the same here. He has still a lot to learn, especially on screenwriting, but it’s not in every festival that we see fresh ideas expressed in such a powerful cinematographic way.