Director: Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert | 1h 53mins | Comedy, Drama, Fantasy | Languages: Polish, Russian
Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a Russian speaking immigrant, works as a masseur for wealthy people living in a large housing complex. When he gets a reputation for healing and hypnotising, the rich people hire him to take away their pain.
Szumowska links up with her regular cinematographer Michal Englert (this time as a co-director) and gives us Poland’s submission for the Academy Awards next year. It’s unsurprising, then, to watch a film with a darkly humorous take on the social constructs of Poland, and how the bourgeoisie ignore those below them without realising how much they rely on them.
The film starts as it means to go on, the mysterious masseur Zhenia appears in the foggy woods with nothing but his table, with a look of knowing and where his destination is. He then goes to the immigration office in Poland where a slew of people sit outside the office filling out forms waiting for their opportunity at a life in Poland. Zhenia waltz’s pass all of them and heads straight to an office, where he hypnotises the government official and stamps himself a new life in Poland.
Some time passes and Zhenia seems to have built a clientele in a glossy bourgeois neighbourhood. The people in the gated community feel shut off from real problems, projecting them onto Zhenia as if he’s healing their minds as well. The problems are sometimes trivial but notice how nobody engages Zhenia as an equal. The only interest they take in him is the fact he’s from a place close to Chernobyl, and subsequently following it with an inappropriate joke or regarding it as a cocktail party anecdote. The problems they have really feel like a product of being locked into the gated community, and Zhenia is a symbol of spice and difference in their lives.
Zhenia is a presence for better and worse. This is because of Alec Utgoff’s performance, enigmatic and graceful when he needs to be – he dominates the film from beginning to end.
But Zhenia’s presence is otherworldly, broad-shouldered and deliberately silent, he has so much presence in a scene. Imposing himself physically as the largest and most prominent in the room. Often the power he has is both physically and mentally though, his healing hands give him influence, whether he’s a potential healer of cancer, or even a comfort for exhausted and under appreciated housewife, Maria (Maja Ostaszewska); Zhenia is a presence for better and worse. This is because of Alec Utgoff’s performance, enigmatic and graceful when he needs to be – he dominates the film from beginning to end.
As the episodic tale builds, Zhenia becomes this messiah like figure and eventually get’s his audience at a children’s play. The ending is one of illusion and intrigue. Beautifully shot as a Vegas-like performance as Zhenia, now front and centre with his clienteles full attention, disappears gloriously leaving a devastatingly empty hole in the audience. The mourning is only brief though, the rich begin to go on with their lives (shown in a dramatic montage) blissfully, as if Zhenia was never really there.
It feels like a mediation on how much the bourgeoisie ridicule and under appreciate the importance of the people ‘below’ them, taking advantage of them and under appreciating the place they have in society, making it all the more sweet to watch someone like Zhenia be welcomed by them and in turn break them down from inside their high walls. It’s a film with a motive, but delicately tells it through enigmatic storytelling and a central character that is more absorbing as the film goes on.