'It Looks Pretty From a Distance'

A trip into a particular circle of rural Polish hell, "It Looks Pretty From a Distance" finds painter-turned-filmmaker Wilhelm Sasnal applying his photorealist inclinations to a post-industrial community that survives on scrap and salvage, stripped of most of the virtues that would qualify it as human.

A trip into a particular circle of rural Polish hell, “It Looks Pretty From a Distance” finds painter-turned-filmmaker Wilhelm Sasnal applying his photorealist inclinations to a post-industrial community that survives on scrap and salvage, stripped of most of the virtues that would qualify it as human. At a distance is precisely where auds will want to keep the characters, although art-film lovers will embrace Sasnal’s feature debut (co-helmed with his wife, sometime-model Anka Sasnal). Commercial potential seems bleak, but festival play has been lusty.

Pic can certainly be viewed as a commentary on and inversion of cinematic conventions and expectations: The Sasnals often employ a fixed camera, allowing characters and moving objects to intrude on the frame rather than be the focus of it; the angles at which people and objects are captured is consistently surprising, and the naturalism the Sasnals pretend to is deliberately self-conscious.

But the film also works as a scathing critique of Polish society and history: One character tells an old wartime anecdote of two women who were so full of fear they jumped in the local river, drowning themselves and their three children. “But,” he adds, “they weren’t Polish.” No, they were almost certainly Jewish. Who else would be so frightened? Wilhelm Sasnal’s work has been inspired by Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” and the pic taps into the not-so-long-buried roots of a horrific present.

It’s a chickens-home-to-roost scenario, at least as viewed from a historical perspective. The largely unnamed people in the unnamed town treat each other with brutal contempt, brutal language and sometimes just plain brutality: A demented mother who pees on the rug once too often is bathed, dressed and carted away to an unnamed destination, never to be seen again. When her stinking bed is dragged out in the sunlight, maggots swarm out of it the size of lima beans, a foreshadowing of the human swarm to come.

When Pawel (Marcin Czarnik), the mother-evicting son, disappears from the village, his vindictive neighbors attack, although — and this is the Sasnals’ point — they do it under cover of darkness: Pawel’s house is looted, ransacked and all but demolished. In the half-light under which much of the film is shot, “It Looks Pretty From a Distance” borders on the ghoulish; as a portrait of a people, it’s decidedly unnerving.

Technically, the film is remarkable, especially (if not exclusively) the sound by Igor Klaczynski: The crunch of gravel, the straining gears of the small, wheezy cars and, in one scene, a woman’s inexplicable howl do as much to worry the soul as does the Sasnals’ story.

It Looks Pretty From a Distance

Poland

Production

An Anton Kern Gallery and Filmopolis presentation. Produced by Wilhelm Sasnal, Anka Sasnal, Anton Kern. Executive producer, Agata Szymanska. Directed, written by Anka Sasnal, Wilhelm Sasnal.

Crew

Camera (color), Wilhelm Sasnal, Aleksander Trafas; editor, Beata Walentowska; production designer, Marek Zawierucha; costume designer, Ewelina Gasior; sound (Dolby Digital), Igor Klaczynski. Reviewed at New Directors/New Films, New York, March 27, 2012. Running time: 77 MIN.

With

Marcin Czarnik, Agnieszka Podsiadlik, Piotr Nowak, Elzbieta Okupska, Jerzy Lapinski, Hanna Chojnacka.
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