A larky reunion for Poland’s two leading cinematic talents, “The Revenge” (“Zemsta”) hasn’t taken itself seriously off-screen, either. Despite the presence of Andrzej Wadja behind the camera and Roman Polanski before it, this latest film version of Aleksandr Fredo’s Polish folktale-based farce apparently bypassed the fest circuit to open wide on home-turf screens last October, grossing more than $6 million in local dollars within its first six weeks. Absence of international profile given illustrious pedigree might suggest an artistic disaster, but this handsome, widescreen comedy about bickering bluebloods proves quite diverting, if seldom truly hilarious.
Think of it as a snowbound equivalent to Clare Peploe’s recent Neapolitan romp “Triumph of Love,” mercifully sans the impulse to vaguely “modernize” 17th century attitudes. Picked up by micro-distrib MGE in the U.S., pic is old-fashioned fare (in terms of both theatrical and cinematic fashion) that should get at least some arthouse-entree help from Polanski’s heightened post-“Piano” profile.
Italian author Fredo’s work, smoothly adapted by scenarist Wadja, pits True Love against the time-tested forces of greed, pride, lust and stupidity, in a story similar to better-remembered efforts by Moliere and Goldoni, for instance. Secret sweethearts Klara (Agata Buzek) and Waclaw (Rafal Krolikowski) entertain dreams of wedlock despite a feud between her blustery uncle Czesnik (Janusz Gajos) and his miserly father Rejent (Andrzej Seweryn). Rejent plans to infuriate his foe further by marrying off Waclaw to Podstolina (Katarzna Figura), a bosomy widow Czesnik plans to wed himself.
Each elders’ retinue inhabits half the same crumbling-castle compound, separated by courtyard; their petty grievances are acted out like border warfare.
Scurrying like a mouse among all concerned parties is the impoverished Papkin (Polanski), an alleged nobleman, war hero and all-around braggart (“When it comes to love I’m like a tiger!”) whose true cowardly nature emerges at the least fright. He covets beauteous Klara for himself, a ludicrous hope she puts to good use in manipulating the fool for her own purposes.
Papkin’s histrionics at believing he’s been fatally poisoned highlight the added complications and occasional slapstick that keep “The Revenge” percolating pleasantly toward a happy ending for all — as well as offering a timely plea for peace in general.
Wadja has seldom been accused of having a particularly light touch, but this rare comedic venture is solidly enjoyable. Though characters often address the camera directly, theatrical roots are otherwise soft-pedaled through pert editing and fluid staging. Location shooting provides d.p. Pawel Edelman with lovely subzero vistas (which can’t have been much fun to work in), though in keeping with material’s zesty nature, Wadja resists too much lyrical imagery. Other design elements are both opulent and plain, reflecting the era’s financial hardships for once-flush Polish aristocracy. Wojciech Kilar contribs an attractive quasi-period score.
Polanski and Wadja have worked together before — nearly a half-century ago, he acted in director’s landmark first feature “A Generation.” Still spry on the cusp of 70, his alternately puffed-up and sniveling Papkin is just one amusing turn within a strong ensemble. The equally historied Gajos is quite funny in his frequent crimson-faced rages; Daniel Olbrychski (a Wadja staple as far back as “Ashes and Diamonds”) ditto as a definitively dimwitted servant.