Stunningly photographed and thematically provocative, “Nothing” limns the tragedy of a young Polish mother with too many children and not enough choices. In her third short feature, writer-director Dorota Kedzierzawska again brings a distinctive eye and precise feel for the delicate interplay between the light world of youngsters and the dark forces of adulthood.
One of four international filmers feted as “Emerging Masters” at the Seattle fest (alongside Francois Ozon, Tom Tykwer and Michael Winterbottom), Kedzierzawska seems on the verge. With her 1994 drama “Crows” just out on videocassette in the U.S. after numerous festival dates, and her 1991 feature debut, “Devils, Devils” (Cannes Special Jury Prize) recently acquired by Maryland-based Cinema Parallel, the time could be right for a courageous, doting distributor to make something from “Nothing.”
In a fifth-floor Krakow walkup, a woman caresses the face of her sleeping husband while whispering her declarations of love. Yet it soon becomes obvious that Hela (Anita Kuskowska-Borkowska) is trapped in a cruel marriage: Antoni (Janusz Panasewicz), once awake, is an unfeeling monster who disappears for stretches and seems uncaring toward their three children.
Discovering she’s pregnant again, and petrified of losing her man, Hela keeps her condition a secret as she explores her medical, religious and official options. Reactions range from apprehensive (“I could lose my job”) to sympathetic (“Think about your children, everything will be all right”) as doctors, clerics and clerks refuse even to counsel her, much less help.
Hela becomes increasingly distraught at the signs of life around her, responding to the sight of happy couples, young marrieds and even the traditional Christmas carp in her bathtub (which she can’t seem to bring herself to kill) by trying to lose the baby. Her efforts include letting her son jump up and down on her stomach as part of a game, and impulsively lowering herself into boiling water with the laundry.
Pic presents numerous hot-button issues. Yet with all her sympathetic qualities, Hela is less a vehicle for social criticism than an embodiment of Kedzierzawska’s ongoing exploration of the hard choices parents, specifically mothers, must make to protect and nurture their offspring in an uncaring world, and the resiliency of children to such faceless cruelty.
Still, the work gives auds plenty to think about. At the climactic moment, when Hela whispers the title in response to an offscreen judge’s question, “Do you have anything to say in your defense?,” the true magnitude of her tragedy, and Kedzierzawska’s singular vision in realizing it, become clear.
Helmer-writer has found a trusted ally in cinematographer and co-editor Arthur Reinhart, who also shot and cut “Crows.” Eschewing words in favor of textures, angles and a clear line between light and dark that mocks the grayness of the issues, “Nothing” relies on the jarring juxtaposition of telling close-ups and oddly framed longer shots to create a world of apprehensive beauty.
Other tech credits from Kedzierzawska’s regular crew are pro, and the adult cast is uniformly good in a pic that relies more on placement and expression than performance. As in her previous work, Kedzierzawska captures extraordinarily intimate and unguarded moments of childhood mischief that suggest a filmmaker possessed of patience, compassion and luck in equal measure.