Almost unbearably brutal yet hauntingly romantic, helmer Wojtek Smarzowski’s riveting period drama “Rose” reveals a little-known chapter of Polish history: the post-WWII persecution of the Mazurians, indigenous residents of what is now northeastern Poland. Boasting strong direction, impeccable performances and top-of-the-line craft credits, the tragic tale of war, ravishment and survival bears comparison with masterworks such as Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” and Frantisek Vlacil’s “Adelheid,” and should assure Smarzowski’s status as an internationally recognized auteur. Addition of contextual info about the period’s historical and geographical complexities could ease pic beyond the fest and Polish-lingo circuit offshore.
A prologue set during the failed 1944 Warsaw uprising establishes the film’s tone of savagery, alleviated by flashes of tenderness, and launches the visual leitmotif of violation as Tadeus (Marcin Dorocinski, excellent), a wounded officer of the underground Home Army, witnesses the rape and murder of his wife, a nurse. He dresses in civilian clothes, hoping to leave death and destruction behind, but the retreating Germans lay waste to everything in their path while the advancing Russians pillage and plunder.
The main narrative unfolds in 1945-46 in the Morag Lake region of Mazuria, a border territory that, after a long period under German control, reverts to Polish rule. As Poland’s new pro-Soviet government seeks to resettle Poles from areas annexed by the Soviet Union, the Mazurians, descendants of Baltic Prussians (German-speaking Lutherans), endure humiliating nationality verification procedures and attacks from vengeance-seeking Poles who regard them as German enemies, as well as from rapacious Russian troops who feel entitled to the fruits of victory.
Hiding his military past, Tadeus finds sanctuary on the farm of attractive Mazurian widow Rose (vivid Agata Kulesza), a woman who has been raped so many times that it has destroyed her health (but not her spirit). Drawn together by their sorrows, Tadeus and Rose form a protective bond that unexpectedly matures into a deep and tender love. As he clears her potato fields of mines and defends their home from marauders, their frowned-upon relationship and his special skills attract the unwelcome attention of the new Polish nationalists as well as the notorious Soviet NKVD.
The characters’ knowledge of what language to speak and when to speak it becomes central to the plot, and the screenplay (by exec producer Michal Szczerbic) allows looks and actions to carry most of the dramatic weight. Genre-savvy helmer Smarzowski’s gritty mise-en-scene augments the force of the narrative, putting into visual terms its themes of ill-fated love and a nation doomed by nationalism. What in other hands might have played as costume melodrama focused on the victimized title character here takes the perspective of the loner hero, as Smarzowski gives the pic the hallmarks of a latter-day Western.
The supporting thesps, many of them veterans of Smarzowski’s previous films “The Dark House” and “The Wedding,” supply intense, nuanced, naturalistic performances. As usual, the helmer demonstrates an astute understanding of pacing and how to modulate tension with welcome moments of humor.
Among the ace tech credits, composer Mikolaj Trzaska’s spare, atonal score sets an ominous mood, while the color-desaturated lensing by Piotr Sobocinski Jr. makes visceral the many acts of violation.
Dorocinski nabbed the actor kudo at the Gydnia fest. Pic will open domestically in January.