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Film Review: ‘Spoor’

Agnieszka Holland's new film is a wintry small-town murder mystery that's like a Polish 'Fargo' — or at least it would be if the movie made more sense.

Agnieszka Mandat, Wiktor Zborowski, Miroslav Krobot, Jakub Giersal, Patricia Volny, Borys Szyc.
Release Date:
Feb 12, 2017

Official Site: https://www.berlinale.de/en/programm/berlinale_programm/date

The central character of Agnieszka Holland’s “Spoor” is a lonely, moon-faced schoolteacher who lives in a mountain village near the border of Poland and the Czech Republic and insists on being called by her last name: Duszejko. Each morning, she rises in the country and greets the sun with her two dogs, then whiles away the day. It’s a quiet life, in the kind of setting where not much happens. Or, at least, that’s how it seems until Duszejko learns that her canine companions have gone missing, at which point the film starts to introduce its assaultively colorful cast of characters.

There’s the grizzled poacher next door who keeps his own dog locked in a shed. There’s the swank girl who works in a local boutique and moonlights at a sex club. There’s the baby-faced epileptic computer wizard. There’s the sadistic priest who tells Duszejko that it’s perfectly OK to kill animals, because they “don’t have souls.” There’s the angry hooded police chief who treats her like a criminal. The heart of “Spoor” is set in the wintry wilderness, yet the movie, adapted from a novel called “Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead,” plays as if someone had tried to binge-cram a dozen episodes of a Polish version of “Fargo” into one feature-length film.

Agniezska Madat, who plays Duszejko, is a commanding actress who looks like the earth-mother version of Aileen Wournos. Duszejko, we learn, is a retired civil engineer, though that doesn’t quite square with her hippie-peasant mien. Then again, nothing in the move squares. “Spoor” is a kind of murder mystery, since characters keep showing up dead, and the audience has a theoretical interest in discovering the identity of the woodland serial killer who is apparently responsible. The victims are all local hunters, and every crime scene is marked by tell-tale animal tracks. Beyond that, though, there are no clues; each corpse is another red herring. The movie is murky and disjointed, held together not so much by what happens as by a vague atmosphere of obsession.

Duszejko is an astrology freak, as well as a devoted defender of animals rights, and she seems to have chosen the right place to live. The country locale of “Spoor” is crawling with indigenous species — deer and wild boar, badgers and polecats. We see them scurrying through the woods, and occasionally one of the critters shows up bloody and dead, which is enough to cause Duszejko to weep in agony. She’s a mixture of squishy feeling and crusading righteousness, and she is also one of those protagonists who can be classified as an unreliable narrator. Yet in “Spoor,” the real unreliable narrator is Agnieszka Holland. Scene for scene, she stages the film with confidence and a feeling for mood, yet nothing in it hangs together.

Beneath the lurches in logic, the episodic storyline that never gets going, one discerns the fuzzy outlines of a “vision.” Men are hunters and stalkers. Religion is a lie that pretends to have compassion but doesn’t recognize all of God’s creatures. It’s up to women, who pose as the passive ones, to right the wrongs of the universe with their secretive action. The best thing in “Spoor” is Madat’s performance; she makes Duszejko a figure of equal parts love and rage. Yet the movie is the sort of mess that seems to keep starting over, and you may wind up wishing that you could transport the character to a better film, one that wasn’t too busy undercutting the audience to give it something to rely on.

Film Review: 'Spoor'

Reviewed at Berlinale Palast (Berlin Film Festival), February 12, 2017. Running time: 128 MIN.

Production: A Tor Film, Heimatfilm, Nutprodukce, Chimney, Nutprodukcia production. Producers: Krzysztof Zanussi, Janusz Wachala. Executive producer: Janusz Wachala.

Crew: Director: Agnieszka Holland. Screenplay: Holland, Olga Tokarczuk. Camera (color, widescreen): Jolanta Dylewska, Rafal Paradowski. Editor: Pavel Hrdlicka.

With: Agnieszka Mandat, Wiktor Zborowski, Miroslav Krobot, Jakub Giersal, Patricia Volny, Borys Szyc.

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