'Between 2 Fires'

Good intentions and some effective elements are ultimately outweighed by an overloaded miserabilist narrative agenda in "Between 2 Fires," the first fiction feature from documentarian Agnieszka Lukasiak.

Good intentions and some effective elements are ultimately outweighed by an overloaded miserabilist narrative agenda in “Between 2 Fires,” the first fiction feature from documentarian Agnieszka Lukasiak. Following a beleaguered heroine from perils in her native Belarus to new ones as an asylum-seeker in Sweden, this well-acted pic has political currency but piles on too many crises, some underdeveloped despite the two-hour-plus runtime. Once fest travel is finished, the film’s best prospects will lie in quality tube and rental sales.

A widow with a 10-year-old daughter, Ania (Kamila Nowysz), attractive, 30-ish Belarusian Pole Marta (Magdalena Poplawska) has settled for new spouse Witek (Edward Iwanicki), a drunken lout. When Ania attracts the organized criminals’ attention in their impoverished community, Witek sells the child into presumed white slavery for a roll of cash, perhaps (it’s hinted) letting her be abused as a deal-closer. Marta hurriedly arranges for herself and the child to be smuggled first to Minsk, then on to Sweden.

There, they’re housed in a refugee facility where dozens of others from various nations are also petitioning for permanent sanctuary. Among them are the duo’s new roommate Anissa (Leila Haji), a paranoid and cynical Jordanian; and handsome Algerian Ali (Simon Kassianides). All three adults face mortal danger if forced to return home: Marta fled with Witek’s blood money, battered runaway wife Anissa was marked for a family “honor killing” and outspoken Ali was targeted for assassination by fundamentalists. Yet Swedish authorities stress they’ve no guarantee of a future here.

Things improve somewhat, however. Marta is given a temporary flat, and Ania is allowed to start school. But the threat of deportation hangs over each member of this makeshift new family. Desperate over her daughter’s future, Marta is introduced to some bleak backup plans by fellow Belarusian emigre Gosia (Anna Kulawik-Chojnacki): She could prostitute herself to lonely Swedish men for cash, or marry outright horny old widower Bengt (Fredrik Ohlsson, a long way from the “Pippi” movies) for fast-track citizenship.

Less would have been more in the pic’s catalog of degradations and injustices, with organ-harvesting kidnappers, a suicide attempt and other perils often awkwardly dropped into the cluttered storyline. Occasional scenes that end abruptly without arriving at a portended point suggest even more trauma might have been left on the cutting-room floor.

When we get a “happiness montage” (including a rather bewildering surplus of fairly graphic sex scenes), it’s all too clear this only presages even worse events. By the time creditable lead thesp Poplawska is forced to play a lengthy scene of full-on hysteria in the buff, the clash between earnest intent and sensational excess finds the film caught like a deer in headlights.

Brit thesp Kassianides (“Quantum of Solace”) makes a charismatic impression, bolstering the romantic angle’s credibility; other supporting perfs are strong, though one wonders if Nowysz’s Ania was meant to seem as bratty as she often does. Tech and design contributions are able.

Between 2 Fires

Sweden-Poland

Production

A Sonet Film presentation of a Hob and Apple Film production in association with Filmpool Nord, Republiken and Sonet Film. (International sales: Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm.) Produced by Peter Kropenin, Dariusz Jablonski. Co-producers, Jablonski, Izabela Wojcik, Violetta Kaminska. Directed, written by Agnieszka Lukasiak.

Crew

Camera (color), Hubert Taczanowski; editor, Marcin Kot Bastkowski; music, Antoni Lazarkiewicz; production designer, Madeleine Lundberg; costume designers, Viktoria Mattila, Agata Culak; sound (Dolby Digital), Tony Osterholm, Maths Kallqvist; sound designer, Carl Edstrom; re-recording mixers, Per Nystrom, Edstrom; casting, Catarina Ramstedt, Kasia Skibinska. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Oct. 17, 2011. (In Mill Valley Film Festival -- World Cinema; Karlovy Vary, Warsaw film festivals.) Running time: 130 MIN.

With

Magdalena Poplawska, Kamila Nowysz, Simon Kassianides, Leila Haji, Fredrik Ohlsson, Johann Neumann, Anna Kulawik-Chojnacki, Mirjam Wohrman, Grzegorz Kowalczyk, Alicja Iwanicka, Edward Iwanicki. (English, Polish, Swedish, Arabic dialogue)

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