Like a chameleon, Marcin Sauter’s “North From Calabria” cleverly slips between narrative whimsy and documentary reality as a kind-of portrait of the Polish town of Chelmsko Slaskie, in which the citizens are prepping for their annual festival. Suffused with a utopian vision of a community whose members always get along, yet accented by a bittersweet tone that anchors it to a genuine view of humanity, this is a fine, fresh example of the hybrid film that will seduce fest programmers beyond Europe as well as adventurous distribs.
Sauter’s blend of fiction and nonfiction intermingles pro actors with locals, erasing any detectable boundary between the two. While the helmer said he has never seen the work of Catalan filmmaker Jose Luis Guerin, “Calabria” vividly recalls Guerin’s masterful balance of visually keen observation with amusing, distinctive characters and a charged sense of place.
Things get going in their own sweet time, as the mayor (none of the listed actors are credited to their characters) explains details of the central plaza stage to the festival organizer, while a group of jolly late-middle-agers and elders hilariously rehearse a play. Perhaps most amusing is a local gourmand who charms a group of admiring ladies with his ability to find snails for the festival cook-off. Unfolding alongside all this is a charming series of moments in a phone booth from which the film derives its title.
The show must go on, but so does life, as the mayor finds when a lonely widow woos him; surprisingly, he woos her right back with some of his own poetry. Sauter stage-manages things superbly, as all the pieces and characters come together for festival day, which soon sours after the sun sets and a raging storm arrives.
As with the smudged line between pro and amateurs onscreen, it’s impossible to detect what dialogue Sauter wrote and what may have been improvised in the moment; whichever is the case in any given scene, the gab is terrific. So is Radoslaw Ladczuk and Lukasz Gutt’s cinematography, which beautifully serves the film’s utopian comedy. Maciej Cieslak’s music, on the other hand, pushes the comic impulse a bit too far.