“Leave No Marks” would be a more apt translation from the Polish title of “Leave No Traces,” referring as it does to a horrifying command from one police officer to another, heard early on in this marathon fact-based drama: “Hit the stomach so you leave no marks, not on the back.” They’re in the middle of administering a merciless, unprovoked beating — a hard rain of combat boots and handheld batons — to a very soft target in 18-year-old student Grzegorz Przemyk, holding nothing back but acute physical evidence of their ire, even as the victim’s stunned best friend looks on. Those missing marks, or traces, are only the first deception in the state’s protracted, punishing efforts to disprove what they know really happened, and Jan P. Matuszyński’s film unravels the conspiracy with earnest, exhaustive fury.
It’s a true-crime story that could be dramatized with equal power as a tight, taut procedural thriller or a forensic multi-part miniseries — though at 160 minutes, Matuszyński’s moving but somewhat congested film falls between those two stools. Already chosen as Poland’s submission to the Oscar international film race, this Venice competition entry has been racking up sales in Europe, and could benefit beyond the continent from the border-crossing topicality of its protest against police violence. Still, its combination of upsetting subject matter and dense storytelling makes it no easy art-house proposition.
“Leave No Traces” opens on a note of breezy, youthful exuberance: Audiences may want to hold this feeling close for the next three hours, because it certainly won’t be revisited. The year is 1983 and Grzegorz (Mateusz Górski) and Jurek (Tomasz Ziętek) are freshly graduated from high school, celebrating merrily but not antisocially in Warsaw’s town square, when a pair of policemen inexplicably stop Grzegorz and demand his ID. As the son of liberal poet and political firebrand Barbara Przemyk (Sandra Korzeniak), he knows his rights, and resists. They respond by apprehending him, and taking both boys to the station, where the aforementioned assault ensues. He’s taken to hospital, and dies of his wounds.
The body is barely cold when the wheels of the government’s cover-up machinery start turning, with an army of judicial and security officials united in their joint goal to gaslight and discredit Jurek, the crime’s only honest witness. It’s an attack from all sides: While one group seeks to expose potentially scandalous past relations between Jurek and Barbara, another works on turning Jurek’s conservative, suggestible parents against him. Still another, meanwhile, attempts to frame the hapless ambulance orderlies who took Grzegorz to hospital as his killers.
With no upper limit to how many lives the state may ruin in order to save face, “Leave No Traces” presents a veritable litany of institutional rot, dramatized through scene after scene of hollow-eyed gray men going over their appalling strategy in offices smoggy with cigarette smoke and general moral murk. (Kacper Fertacz’s cinematography paints the airless, oppressive political climate of the ’80s in smudgy shadows and tea-stained browns.) The officials are inhuman in ways that range from suavely bloodless internal affairs minister Stanisław Kowalczyk (“Cold War” star Tomasz Kot) to a positively gorgon-esque public prosecutor (Aleksandra Konieczna), whose garish styling and tipsy, squawking delivery make her a lone, oddly placed note of comic relief in this increasingly hopeless, light-free enterprise.
As the film continues, however, this tangled ensemble of evil rather overwhelms the presence of Jurek in the story. Ostensibly the hero of the piece, stubbornly defending the truth with each ugly turn the case takes, he (along with Ziętek’s appealingly defiant performance) eventually feels squeezed into the margins: a development that is symbolically resonant, but narratively deflating. Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk’s knotty screenplay commendably attempts to capture the vastness of the system Jurek are up against, outnumbering him with hordes of secondary characters and subplots to underline the point that you can’t fight city hall.
Yet more nuanced human drama is lost in this big picture: Jurek’s layered relationship with Barbara is weaponized by the enemy but never really evoked on screen, while his thorny battle of wills with his ex-military dad (Jacek Braciak), who sides with the system on principle, is teased out in a few potent scenes, but might make for a richer film on its own. We know the system is stacked against the individual: When is it not? The very shape and structure of “Leave No Traces,” for all its blunt power and intelligence, admits defeat too early.