Handsome but somewhat dramatically inert, Jan Jakub Kolski’s “Venice” follows an upper-class Polish family’s fortunes as they try to ride out the worst of effects of WWII by repairing to a country estate. Landscapes and lyrical lensing make more of an impression than the helmer’s diffuse script (based on two stories by Nobel-nominated local literary celeb Wlodzimierz Odojewski), which fails to develop much narrative sweep or emotional impact. Winner of Montreal’s “Best Artistic Contribution” nod — no doubt for its lush visual charms — the pic is unlikely to prove a prestige export item, with offshore prospects skewing toward DVD and Eurotube.
Eleven-year-old Marek (Marcin Walewski) wants nothing more than to visit fabled Venice, which everyone else in his family has already done. Instead he’s deposited in 1939 at the family’s crumbling rural manse already occupied by a grandmother and two aunts and whatever other relatives are fleeing eventual Warsaw air raids. Among the clan’s four adult sisters, permanent residents Veronika (Kolski’s spouse Grazyna Blecka-Kolska) and Barbara (Agnieszka Grochowska) are industrious and content youthful spinsters; by contrast, Marek’s mother Joanna (Magdalena Cielecka) and youngest sib Lilian (Dana Batulkowa) are flighty socialites reluctant to let children or other dull obligations weigh them down.
As the war years fitfully pass — our protagonist’s officer father first on the front lines, then in a Soviet POW camp — isolated boredom and typical growing pains are goosed by the occasional notable event. Basement flooding allows Marek to create his own miniature Venice of “canals” and makeshift “bridges,” lending the pic a recurring fanciful touch. The protag witnesses the strafing of a Polish regiment; his elder brother Victor (Filip Piotrowicz) disappears for days on end to help the local resistance; Nazis passing through shoot a Jewish child simply because they can; dad (Mariusz Bonaszewski) finally shows up, alive but badly traumatized.
Though it all, the clan’s shabby-genteel lifestyle remains intact, their deprivations modest compared with what most of the country is doubtless going through.
There are poetical aesthetics aplenty here — the pic’s palate is awash in Artur Reinhart’s delicate photography, the river-like flow of Witold Chominski’s editing, and numerous Chopin piano excerpts.
But despite the narrative’s six-year timespan and a few vivid sequences, the ably played characters never deepen enough to move us. Sometimes their return to the estate is heralded when we hadn’t noticed they’d left. The ironic, final tragedy is diminished by fact that an older actor is practically unrecognizable as the same character played earlier by a younger one.
The more serious historical themes here, while just glancingly treated, nonetheless tend to undercut Kolski’s trademark magical realism. Result is a pretty patchwork that is first-rate in all tech/design departments yet ultimately seems too unfocused and flyweight to do justice to the period portrayed.