Review. Pray for Peace, Train for War

In her feature debut Pray for Peace, Train for War, Polish director Agnieszka Elbanowska creates an irreverent comedy that experiments with the cinematic form and intertwines the themes of war and childhood. It’s an ambitious project that combines physical humour with collage and theatrics, while perhaps being too in love with its over-the-top antics and stylisation.

Tytus, a young man, joins a guerilla squad which runs trials for “the real war” and quickly encounters the difficulties of a soldier. The protagonist is clumsy, has the unfashionable haircut of a Roman emperor (which fits as he knows Latin) and displays a charming wit but is too naive to be taken seriously. As he struggles to maintain his childlike demeanour during military training, he becomes an endearing main character, played with entertaining innocence by Michal Sikorski.

Sikorski is flanked by a supportive cast which acts as an important pillar in this exaggerated cinematic carnival and elevates it above its irreverent approach. Piotr Ligienza orders Tytus around convincingly in the role of the protagonist’s officer, becoming a sort of anti-hero who retains redeeming qualities such as loyalty and leadership. Kinga Jasik plays the love interest, a character who is unwilling to accept Tytus as a partner but is also not indifferent to his feelings. Juliusz Chrząstowski is convincing as the protagonist’s father, who’s obsessed with the readiness of his son’s squad and embodies a whole generation that was primed to always prepare for armed conflict.

While the cast clicks with the narrative, there is a sense of overwhelming stylisation which surrounds the potentially compelling characters. The first-time director throws caution to the wind and employs an eclectic style of collage that stifles the viewer with abrasive audio and visual inserts of classical art that add little to the story. This montage of high-pitched sounds and flat visuals distracts the audience from the genuine relationships between fellow soldiers and from the protagonist’s coming-of-age story, which is often eclipsed by raucous antics and editing.

The narrative is uneven and feels more like a slapstick sketch than a feature film. There is a general feeling of experimentation, especially in the performances, but it lacks nuance and works against the film as a whole. The director inserts an almost oneiric scene in which Tytus and his fellow soldiers encounter several naked women in the woods. There’s potential in its mystical atmosphere, which carries the undertones of the mythological Sirens. But, other than being an exaggerated performative experiment and a narrative device, it adds little to this debut and even takes away from better articulated themes, such as the inherent absurdity of war.

There’s an intentional lack of seriousness that hurts the potential of this unconventional comedy. Regardless of the talented cast and the ambition to make a war satire, the unfocused narrative and the ever-present rowdy antics reveal an overindulgent style of filmmaking. The result of this sensibility is somewhat entertaining but fails to refine its farce and balance the themes of armed conflict and innocence.

Sergiu Inizian