Silent Night: All is (not) calm
by Ola Salwa
- First-time director Piotr Domalewski takes a snapshot of a rural Polish family as they celebrate Christmas Eve – and in doing so, he scooped the Golden Lions and showcases his unique talent
It was the second time in a row that the top honours of the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia had been won by a debutant for a film that deals with family matters. In 2016, Jan P Matuszyński and his The Last Family [+see also:
film profile] took home the top prize, and this year’s winner was Piotr Domalewski, who wrote and directed Silent Night [+see also:
interview: Piotr Domalewski
film profile]. He is one of those multitalented filmmakers – he was also trained as an actor and musician, and directed short films before moving on to his feature debut, a family drama infused with black humour.
The premise of the film is simple. Adam (Dawid Ogrodnik) comes home from his job in the Netherlands for Christmas, armed with euro bills, a small digital camera and a sonogram of his unborn baby. He returns only for one day, but his agenda is full to the gills and will be revealed slowly as the plot progresses. Adam confronts his family – his parents, siblings and cousins, who seem to be stuck in the discouraging setting of rural Poland. He, on the other hand, wants to leave the country for good and start a new life together with his pregnant girlfriend. But, as is the case the world over, the holiday festivities summon up the demons of the past, who will either be exorcised by Adam or will haunt him forever.
Silent Night inadvertently recalls Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada [+see also:
Q&A: Cristi Puiu
film profile] and Wojciech Smarzowski’s Dark House, but Domalewski is by no means a copycat, and in contrast with these two directors, he leaves his country’s political past out of the picture. He is an artist in his own right, using cinematic language with the proficiency of a world-class pianist, and always seeming to hit the right note. In Silent Night, he combines the simplicity of small-town life in a Polish village with the complexity of the characters he places in front of the camera; and then he steeps all of that in the mundane, non-photogenic problems of everyday life in his homeland. The quiet alcoholism, domestic abuse, loneliness, unemployment, frustration and need to leave the country in order to make a living – these are the tunes of Domalewski’s very unmerry Christmas carol. And yet in all this gloominess, there is a ray of bright light: family love, however imperfect and toxic, which keeps everyone together.
The ensemble cast’s performances are exquisite, and Piotr Sobociński Jr’s moving, ever-vigilant camera does an amazing job of capturing the intentionally subdued emotions that the actors bring to the scenes. Domalewski’s may be just the voice that Polish cinema needs: quiet, yet persistent – and most of all, not afraid to tell the truth.
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