Though in most respects a conventional painter’s biopic, “My Nikifor” has some interesting warps in its canvas. For starters, Nikifor Krynicki was an acclaimed “outsider” artist, a self-taught, quasi-autistic ragamuffin who achieved national fame in his native Poland. Second, tiny, mustachioed Nikifor is played here by established character actress Krystyna Feldman, in the most convincing cross-dressing perf since Linda Hunt in “The Year of Living Dangerously.” More exportable than usual Polish fare, pic by director Krzysztof Krauze (“The Debt”) drew good numbers, for such quiet fare, on early fall release.
Central protag is less Nikifor, a figure of mystery for most of the film, than state-employed painter Marian Wlosinski (Roman Gancarczyk), a bearish looking but amiable soul who has ambitions to rise up through the Communist Party ranks. In 1960, in the small spa town of Krynica, Wlosinski first meets Nikifor (Feldman) when the latter wanders into his studio, starts helping himself to paint and touches up one of Wlosinski’s works uninvited.
At first, Wlosinski considers him a minor nuisance, especially as Nikifor expresses disdain for Wlosinski’s work; but he soon discerns the genius behind Nikifor’s disheveled appearance, and becomes his protector. Wlosinski maintains contact with Nikifor even after the latter is diagnosed with contagious tuberculosis.
Pic’s midsection has a mystery movie feel as Wlosinski turns detective to try and discover Nikifor’s origins, and struggles to make him get medical treatment. Last act ends on a high note, with Nikifor enjoying being the toast of the town when Warsaw’s Zacheta art gallery mounts a retrospective of his work.
Ace thesping creates considerable light and shade, with Feldman repping the obvious standout here. Tiny in size, but with a ferocious light in his eyes, Feldman’s shuffling, grumpy Nikifor consistently compels, like a cross between Dustin Hoffman’s mumbling savant in “Rain Man” and Bruno S.’ holy fool in “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.”
Use of snow-covered wintry landscapes throughout cleverly echoes the blank sheets of paper Nikifor uses for his work. Lensing by top Polish d.p. Krzysztof Ptak (“Pornography,” “Edi”) works with a rich, gray-dominated palette that makes the splashes of Communist red on flags and the like stand out all the more. The real-life Wlosinski takes a consultant credit at pic’s end.