I have a pile of TBR books, and when I finish one, it is always tough for me to choose what to read next – do I go serious, or light? My mood changes a lot, and there have been many instances that I would give up on something a couple of pages after starting it. But I just randomly chose to read ‘Swimming In the Dark’ by Tomasz Jedrowski next. I knew this was a gay love story, and nothing else about it. I find out later that the title comes with a lot of hype, a bidding war for its rights when it became available.
Written in. first person in a form of a letter, the story is Ludwik, and tells initially of growing up gay in Poland. He realizes his orientation early on, and meets Janusz at a summer camp in 1980. They become lovers, as they go back to Communist Warsaw in 1980. It feels like a doomed love affair – Ludwik dreams of freedom, Janusz wants tp stay, and why not, since he has connections in the government and can lead an easy life – he has to pretend he is straight, and has no problems with that. Their story develops as the country has more conflict – rebels want freedom, and the government in charge desperately holds on to it. Even though we know that Ludwik is able to escape (he starts his letter writing fro m New York) we still get caught in the suspense of his story, and feel the depth of his longing for Janusz. It’s onw of those once-in-a-lifetime love affairs, and its setting has made it infinitely more romantic. This was one of those books I couldn’t put down and in fact, I finished it in a day. I wanted to know what happened next, and I luxuriated in the romanticism of it. This feels like it would make a wonderful movie as well.
I chanced upon Ana Lasota’s album ‘Essence’ on Spotify. I guess it was recommended to me because of my interest in musical theater. It’s weird that there isn’t much information on the internet about Lasota even though her Amazon page describes her as “one of the best Polish voices on the musical theatre and film scene in Poland.” but no matter, it’s all about the music, right, and she sings these theater songs fantasticaly. She is blessed with a clear soprano that has a wonderful range, and when she sings these musical theater songs, you do not get the impression that she is ‘slumming.’ My favorite tracks are the ones where she sings in Polish, and we get three here: ‘Aldonza’ ‘I Could Have Danced All Night,’ and ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him.’ You can sense great connection tot he lyrics even if I don’t know how to speak a lick of Polish. The rest of the album is just as stellar, though I don’t really know why people keep on including ‘You Raise Me Up’ in theater music-centric albums. Even if you have not heard of her, this recording is worth seeking out.
‘Corpus Christi’ is nominated for best International Feature at The Oscars and comes from Poland. It is a religious parable of sorts, which is interesting because it comes from a mostly Catholic country – nearly 90% of the people identify as Roman Catholic. It stars Bartosz Bielenia as Daniel, a young man who was just paroled from juvie. He wants to be a priest, but cannot be accepted to the seminary because of his record (I wonder if that is a Catholic rule) He is sent to a rural town to work in their sawmill but when he gets there, gets mistaken for the young priest they have been waiting for, so voila, he becomes ‘Father Thomas.’
This sounds like a set up for a mistaken-identity comedy, but the film is much more intelligent than that. Father Thomas connects with the town folk – he drinks and smokes with them, and before you know it, the pews are crowded as he says mass. We get lessons in false idolatry, and how charisma can sway people to believe what you want them to believe. Father Thomas seems sincere because he is, we identify with him because just like us, he is an unapologetic sinner. There are some sub plots that populate the film and they distract from a main idea. I never got fully invested in a story line about young kids dying from an accident, and the shady mayor just felt all too familiar. But Bielenia is a star – you simply cannot turn away from him when he is on screen. This is a thought provoking film, and while I am not a practicing Catholic, I still have all of it in my head, and there is a lot I can identify and repel in this film.
It’s Christmas Day, so what better to celebrate than write about a film about doomed love? ‘Cold War’ is Poland’s entry for Best Foreign Film this year, and because its closest rival, ‘Roma’ (from Mexico) is being elevated, this film has been garnering a lot of attention.
And of course I loved this film – a love story that is big, bold, not necessarily unrequited but nevertheless doomed. It’s a hot mess situation from the very beginning, and it only gets to be a bigger mess as it perseveres through decades. It’s unruly, undisciplined, but at the same time, that makes it more seeped in passion – this big ‘thing’ that never quite makes it, until it flames out in a way that it does, and then it doesn’t.
Written and directed by Pawel Pawiloski, the film is inspired by his parent’s love story, and he even names his characters after them – Zula Lichon (Joana Kulig, smoldering in the best possible way) and Wiktor Warski (Thomas Kot, slow burn simmering) – lovers who first meet in post-war Poland. They start a clandestine love affair and for years and ears after, they just can’t quit each other. While I was watching it, there was a part of me that became exasperated with the two characters – how much is enough, really – but as I thought about it more, I realized that it was intentional as the story wanted us to experience how it felt being in the middle of that relationship. And there’s a great jazz vocal element in the film – Zula records one while she is living in Paris, and the songs and her performance of them are swoon-worthy. Shot in glorious black in white, the film feels like old-fashioned romance, and it feels it. Once upon a time, when I was a full-pledged hopeless romantic, I probably would have lapped this film whole. Now that I am older and bitter, I can still see the beauty in it, but with a lot of reservations.
Father-Son movies touch me more than usual, and Polish/German Director Piotr Lewandowski’s film ‘Jonathan’ hits me right to my core. Watching it felt like being punched in the stomach. Jonathan is a young man who is taking care of her father, who is terminally ill with cancer, on his second stage of chemotherapy. He has given up his life and made sacrifices to take care of his father. But his father has one big secret he hasn’t told Jonathan: he is gay. And this movie demonstrates that in order to let go of life, you have to put life in one last time.
Jonathan is played by Jannis Niewohner, and he is a most beautiful male specimen. Lewandowski knows this and photographs him in the best light – you cannot help but fall in love with his character: handsome and sensitive, caring for his ill father. When the secret is finally revealed to him, you feel his anguish, and it doesn’t hurt that Niewohner is a fantastic actor, taking you to different emotional journeys throughout the film. But ultimately, the film is about someone waiting to pass, and I don’t know if I could bear watching this film again. But if you are in the mood to make sure you still feel your heart, nothing is better.