Rates: * * * 1/2
Why Did I Watch It? Seen as part of MIFF 2020, via their digital platform.
Daniel is a wayward youth just out of juvie. Part of his parole involves assignment to a sawmill in rural Poland; a dismal looking gig that he immediately shirks. Holing up in a nearby village, effectively on the run, he is mistaken for a priest; a friend had given him a cassock as a gag. When the elderly village vicar goes away for medical treatment, he finds himself reluctantly having to cover for him, a role he discovers a natural flair for.
It’s a classic movie setup; mistaken identities, and a character pretending to be something they are not. But this is a much more serious treatment than you might normally find with this scenario. Despite his rough exterior, Daniel is pious, and takes the role of village priest seriously. With a little help from Google, he is soon delivering animated sermons that inspire the congregation, raising money for charity, and forging bonds with the community. This is also a classic movie theme: if someone is doing good, does it matter that they are an imposter?
Daniel also starts investigating a recent car accident, that left several village teens dead. A local, middle aged man has been blamed, and his widow subsequently shunned. But there is more to this than first seems; and Daniel is determined to find out what happened, even as this proves controversial and erodes his community standing. He has been treated unfairly himself, the victim of a brutal system of ‘justice’, and now he has some authority he wants to use it fairly. He is simultaneously trying to do the right thing, while doing the wrong thing; he wants a fair resolution for the widow, while hoodwinking the community.
A complex position and character, and the actor, Bartosz Bielenia, delivers an excellent performance. Part of it is purely physical; he is striking looking, with a gaunt, angular face, and expressive eyes. He finds the humanity in Daniel, and makes this initially unappealing lout, compelling. This is someone running purely on instinct, without any real allies, which is captivating to watch.
He gets found out in the end, as you know he must. He is then sent back to jail, where his enemies are waiting; the vicious cycle of violence set to repeat. I was a bit let down by this. Daniel has shown a lot of potential, but the film’s ultimate message seems to be: he will never be allowed to develop. There are just too many things stacked against him, and no one really cares what happens to him anyway. A downer, after seeing him in action.
The film also takes a while to get there. While it is well made, the pacing is slow, and you feel like you always know where it is going. This movie has garnered some rave reviews, and an Oscar nom for best foreign film, so it is clearly a matter of taste. And whatever shortcomings I found, there is a lot of interesting thematic material, and a central performance that is one of the best of the year. Well worth a look.