Monday, November 9, 2015

Body (Cialo)

BODY (Cialo)            B         
Poland (90 mi)  2015  d:  Malgorzata Szumowska     Official Facebook                  

In a major improvement over her earlier film Elles (2011), winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, a prize shared with Romanian director Radu Jude for AFERIM! (2015), the film resists any conventional narrative by initially concealing any storyline, disguising its intent in the first half hour by thriving in a seemingly aimless universe driven by an underlying comic absurdity revealed at the outset when a coroner, Janusz Gajos from THREE COLORS:  WHITE (1994), is called in to investigate a ghoulish scene where a man is seen hanging from a tree, but when the rope is cut, lowering the man to the ground, the victim miraculously regains consciousness and scurries away in embarrassment, leaving the police on the scene thoroughly baffled.  Polish films in general all seem to dwell on the subject of post-Communism, where this one is no exception, as the nation is still searching to redefine itself in the modern era.  Using the Kieslowski template, the director interconnects three disparate characters living in completely different worlds, an alcoholic coroner who spends much of his professional life visiting grisly crime scenes examining dead corpses, his anorexic daughter Olga (Justyna Suwała) who, after the death of her mother, has learned to despise him for being so clinically coldhearted, and a kindhearted therapist, Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), who has the ability to speak with the dead, including her own deceased child, continuing to lead her mother to believe the child is still alive and growing, each of which calls into question the difficulty of Heidegger’s philosophical notion of Being-in-the-world, which includes not just the here and now, but includes the past moving toward the future, where life as we know it has an unknown dimension that speaks to us from the beyond.  

Taking place in the dreary, rain-soaked atmosphere of Warsaw, the coroner is a no-nonsense man spending time studying graphic photos of the dead on his computer, taking detailed notes for his reports, considering himself a man of reason and science.  And while it appears he leads a sad, lonely existence living in a drab apartment still haunted by signs of his deceased wife, though she passed away several years ago, it has left him in a state of permanent indifference, seemingly incapable of raising his daughter or showing the least bit of affection.  So when he finds her passed out at the toilet following her habitual practice of vomiting the contents of her stomach, he brings her to a hospital for long-term care.  When we meet Anna initially she is staring out into space while her hand seemingly has a life of its own, jotting down various auto comments that she hears in her contact with the dead.  While there’s an inherent seriousness with the enveloping mood of the subject matter, this is contrasted by the enormous size of Anna’s dog, that is simply too big to be hopping onto the sofa or into bed with her, but like an insecure puppy, this dog is forever climbing into her space, where living alone in a small apartment, she is dwarfed by the hugeness of this animal, where its hulking size prevents her from eating without disturbance or even seeing the television.  While Anna is assigned as the unconventional therapist for a group of young girls with eating disorders, including Olga, who is forced to eat in its entirety some colorless mush-like substance before she can participate in group sessions, the scene is made even more shocking by shooting the entire group in an alarmingly noticeable all-white room, as if they are being bathed in an atmosphere of purity.

Often introducing brief scenes with comic vignettes or something offbeat, as the coroner is paying a visit to the hospital, Anna senses his dead wife is trying to contact him, and communicates this message to him, sensing a drowning feeling, which he initially finds ridiculous, only to discover afterwards that the site of her grave has been flooded from the recent rainfall.  As if somehow connected, weird things start happening in his apartment, where creaking doors keep opening, the record player turns itself on by itself, and leaking faucets appear to be mysterious attempts by his wife to contact him.  Anna suggests he leave a blank paper and pen out for her to write something.  This is contrasted by a simply bizarre scene of the coroner suspended in a moment out of time when apparently his middle-aged wife or a significant other (Ewa Dalkowska) is happily performing a naked dance to Republika’s “Death By Bikini,” Republika - Śmierć w bikini (5:06), a Polish new wave band of the 80’s.  This brief sense of sensual liberation is outside the realm of anything else we see, which is a coldly repressed universe with inexplicable episodes of gruesome violence, which are the often horrific crime scenes the coroner is continually called in to investigate, like the discovery of a dead baby found in a pool of blood in one of the lavatories of the Warsaw train station, where the director chooses not to show the infant, but instead highlights the reaction of the policemen who refuse to go anywhere near the body, reflected as well by the fear of a poor, helpless stenographer who has been dragged along by the coroner and forced to witness his seemingly apathetic on-the-scene demeanor.  

What the coroner does concern himself with is the unorthodox practices of Anna, which includes the use of primal scream therapy and makes no secret that she believes contact with the deceased helps in the emotional healing of patients, including Olga, who is making progress under her guidance.  Nonetheless, he speaks with the appropriate authorities to have her dismissed, insisting the world reflect his rational views.  When Anna suggests to him that the murder of the newborn would probably never have happened if abortion was legal, then asking him “What happens when these children die?”  “Probably nothing,” he responds passively, suggesting he has little connection to the human soul.  While the script lacks any real complexity, and the one truly interesting character of the psychic medium is largely undeveloped, yet the absurd approach evidenced throughout offers a bleak alternative, suggesting there is more than meets the eye.  Despite the cris-crossing storylines and crimes that are literally left lingering in the background, the emphasis of the film shifts to an uneasy father-daughter connection, where the distance and uncertainty of their relations leads to an uneasy alliance, reluctantly agreeing to utilize Anna’s gift to contact the dead mother whose restless spirit demands to be heard.  Eventually holding hands for an evening séance that extends through the night, the director cleverly challenges the expected cynicism coming from viewers, finding an altogether unexpected twist to salvage the loose ends of a barely stitched together narrative, making excellent use of the Gerry and the Pacemakers song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,”  Gerry & The Pacemakers - You'll Never Walk Alone - YouTube (2:48) which both opens and closes the film, finding a transcendent note from a pop ballad, turning an offbeat ghost story into something uplifting and recognizably humane. 

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