A short feature with a large heart, “The Big Animal” is also a gift from the great beyond: Working from a recently-discovered, unfinished 1973 screenplay by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, vet Polish actor-helmer Jerzy Stuhr (who appeared in a number of Kieslowski’s films and still refers to him as “my best friend”) has made a rueful yet gentle fable about the price of individuality and the value of dignity that preserves the intellectually stimulating spirit of Kieslowski’s best work while tapping into a universally understandable vein of low-keyed absurdist comedy. In light of the brevity of some recent art-house successes, stateside prospects are excellent for this slight but affecting yarn that won auds’ hearts at its Karlovy Vary fest world preem and will appeal to anyone old enough to read the subtitles.
Left behind by a traveling circus, a huge camel (Rubio) wanders into the garden of bank clerk and clarinet enthusiast Zygmunt Sawicki (Stuhr) and his schoolteacher wife Marysia (Anna Dymna). She’s nervous at first, plaintively complaining the beast “gazes back at me” as its cud-chewing head hovers just outside their dining room window during meals. Zygmunt, however, takes to the dromedary immediately and is soon escorting it on long walks in and around their village while proclaiming “this is freedom, buddy.”
The townspeople too seem perfectly comfortable with a large beast of burden in their midst, cheering when Sawicki strolls proudly through in his perfectly belted trenchcoat and black beret with it in tow. He even displays the camel for the delight of Marysia’s charges, who compete to give it a name like Pampoosh, Fluffy, Fuzzy or Hunchback (Sawicki prefers Ramses or Nile).
But soon everyone grows tired and suspicious of the camel except the modest and quiet Sawickis, who are distressed by the ostracism but continue to cherish the animal (Marysia even knits it a shawl with two conveniently situated openings, one for each hump). The children are no longer allowed near it, and, in a last straw, the town council decrees it a nuisance.
As abruptly as the animal appeared, it vanishes, leaving the Sawickis and auds to ponder the ways in which intolerance is bred toward those who act differently.
Perhaps the most recognized face in Polish cinema, Stuhr is in complete command of the material on both sides of the camera. Pic reps his fourth film in half a decade as a director since branching out from the distinguished 30-year acting career he still pursues (he’s competing with himself at the Karlovy Vary fest via his perf in Italo world preem “The Other’s Life”).
He promptly establishes a leisurely yet precise pace from the outset, preferring to let the often humorous blocking and some finely calibrated reaction shots carry the movie.
And the animal itself — actually a pair of them, as they apparently dislike being alone — hits its mark every time and takes direction like a pro, exuding a blissful serenity sans any visual effects.
Tech credits are polished, with the pale luster of Pawel Edelman’s black-and-white lensing massaging the allegorical spirit of the story.