Without ever declaring itself as overtly feminist, “Stranger” is so wrapped up in the vicissitudes of what it’s like to carry a child to term that it would seem only possible from the firm vision of a woman director. Indeed, this refreshingly eccentric second feature by writer-helmer Malgosia Szumowska (“Happy Man”) could gain good Euro theatrical and vid deliveries from a high-profile fest rollout, though North America — as is often the case with Polish films — will prove resistant.
Living with a loving father (Marek Walczewski) and more emotionally distant mother (vet stage star Teresa Budzisz-Krzyzanowska), Eva (Malgosia Bela) has a gas station job far below her intellectual capacity and seems attracted to life’s margins. Roadside hooker Ivona (Barbara Kurzaj) is her only real friend — and only comfort when Eva finds out she’s two months pregnant. As much as Eva would like to talk about her problem with her dad, he appears to be drifting away from the outside world.
When Eva is robbed by junkie Michal (Marcin Brzozowski) of the cash she was going to use for an abortion, she’s forced to bear this stranger forming in her belly. A passing comment by a nurse that fetuses can hear sounds sets off a new burst of energy in Eva. Where another director might tilt toward comedy at this point, Szumowska develops a wonderful range of tones. At one point, Eva is in a Jacques Demy-like dance in a park speaking to her child-to-be; at another, a birthing exercise class becomes a religious experience.
Szumowska (with co-writer Przemek Nowokoski) delights in shifting from the profound (her father observes the first sign of life is hearing) to the unabashedly goofy (her father, again, on an imaginary TV gameshow answering Bach trivia — the composer is the character’s, and the movie’s, glorious obsession). New thesp and former model Bela exquisitely conveys moody introspection. Pic’s most difficult trick — nearly but not totally realized — suggests how Eva and Michal come together as lovers after their nasty first encounter, and how this helps bring Eva out of the emotional cocoon she’s wrapped herself in.
“Stranger” is guided by a hopefulness for the best in human nature that rejects trite dramatic conclusions and visual tropes. In fact, the final closing image is a tour de force of rare complexity, beauty and uncertainty.
Michal Englert’s atmospheric lensing is perceptive. As fine as his score may be, composer Pawel Mykietyn is unavoidably upstaged by the overwhelming Bach selections. Szumowska’s novelist mother, Dorota Terakowska, has published a tome with the same title, inspired by her daughter’s script but reportedly more pessimistic in tone and outcome.