In 1952, during the peak of Stalinist terror in communist Poland, an encounter with the secret police changes life for three generations of women in the good-looking, tonally sophisticated “Reverse.” Rich with references to Polish culture and cinema history, the genre-juggling feature debut of prize-winning documaker Borys Lankosz is clever, complex and spiked with a special kind of black humor. Kudos — including most of the major awards at the national festival in Gdynia — and critical buzz led to an extremely robust domestic opening on Nov. 13th for Poland’s foreign-language film Oscar submission.
Shot in exquisite black-and-white widescreen, with a contemporary coda in color intercut throughout, the entertaining pic boasts pitch-perfect performances from a stellar cast. It is prime fest fare that could find niche arthouse slots in other former Iron Curtain countries where viewers still remember the paranoia, falsehoods, compromise and betrayals engendered by the communist system.
Prim 30-year-old spinster Sabina (Agata Buzek) works as a poetry editor in a Warsaw publishing house and shares a crowded apartment with her resourceful mother, Irena (Krystyna Janda), and ailing but alert grandmother (Anna Polony). Eager for Sabina to marry, the older women put forward a string of unsuitable candidates. An amusing early scene in which Irena brings home an accountant who becomes increasingly drunk plays as bourgeois comedy.
But shy Sabina, whose heart flutters at the manly bare chests of soldiers glimpsed in cinema newsreels, finds her own macho admirer seemingly by chance. One misty night, the mysterious Bronislaw (Marcin Dorocinski) rescues her from a mugging.
As Sabina and Bronislaw grow more intimate, a murder moves the narrative into thriller territory. Later, an extreme act of motherly love takes it into the realm of farce, visualized as German Expressionist grotesquerie. Even more twists ensue before a poignant climax unfolds in the present-day strand, proving that with courage, ordinary citizens can convert pure evil into something good.
Told from a female perspective, the elegant screenplay by literary talent Andrzej Bart revels in allusions, jokes and paradoxes, taking cliches about life in the Stalinist era and turning them inside out. Polish audiences will find the film’s premise — that Warsaw’s Palace of Culture (a not-altogether welcome gift from the Soviets) hides a sinister secret — particularly diverting.
Helmer Lankosz uses his docu background to perfectly re-create the look of the 1950s through set design, makeup and costumes, even blending in archival footage. Yet it is his skillful manipulation of genre conventions that makes viable the special tone of Bart’s script.
From Wlodek Pawlik’s film-noir jazz score, which serves as counterpoint to the pic’s action, to the sublime choice of Nina’s Simone’s cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” under the end credits, the musical choices, like the rest of the ace tech package, are both ironic and revealing.
Pic marks the first production in 14 years from the legendary Studio Kadr, home to the 1950s generation of auteurs known as the Polish School.