Angsty meller “The Welts,” Poland’s foreign-lingo Oscar candidate this year, harks back to the high moral seriousness of ’70s and ’80s Polish cinema. Influence on debuting director Magdalena Piekorz of her producer Krzysztof Zanussi, one of the older generation’s big helming names, is palpable. However, while pic’s first half about an abused child hits home, its second part offers just another casebook trauma drama, with overripe playing by lead Michal Zebrowski. Pic has fought its B.O. corner fiercely at home this fall against “Shark Tale,” but it won’t pack much punch abroad.
Following the death of his mother in ’80s Poland, 12-year-old Wojciech (Waclaw Adamczyk), aka Wojtus, has become the main punching bag for his sadistic father (Jan Frycz). Administering beatings with his belt for the slightest provocation, Wojtus’ dad occasionally tries to bond with the kid but soon snaps back to abusive habits.
Apart from Wojtus’ friend, Bartek (Alan Andersz), no one does anything to help, from the dogmatic teachers at school to the lascivious local priest who’s only interested in Wojtus’ masturbation habits. Section ends with the kid finally defying his father; if left there, pic could have made a strong short.
Second half considerably dilutes this good work. In the present, Wojciech (Zebrowski) is a furrow-browed journalist who spends most of his spare time spelunking solo. Just like dear old dad, he’s got serious anger-management issues. Fellow caver Tania (Agnieszka Grochowska) feels inexplicably attracted to him but the love of a good woman provokes an unconvincing catharsis.
Zebrowski (from Andrzej Wajda’s “Pan Tadeusz”) is better in his quieter moments, and never more chilling than when seen laying vicious traps for pigeons on his window sill. In the high-volume scenes, he convinces far less, especially compared with Frycz as his dad. Starlet Grochowska struggles to make emotional sense of her thinly drawn character.
Piekorz’s direction is competent and shows some promise in small visual flourishes. Smoky lensing by Marcin Koszalka and nuanced use of sound are other pluses.