Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 3, 2019

Communion

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Among the Hollywood “quality” films sent to me in November for consideration in our NYFCO awards meeting was “Crazy Rich Asians” that I could not endure for more than 15 minutes. If I had watched the whole thing, I probably would have written a review something like this:

If you go to a bachelorette party on an island and the other guests put a huge bloody fish head on your pillow, you are in a horror movie, not a rom-com. Maybe at this point in the history of capitalism there’s not much difference. Crazy Rich Asians looks more like a glossy tourist magazine produced for an international economics summit than a movie.

That’s from A.S. Hamrah, the film reviewer at N+1, a really great Marxist journal of politics and the arts. The graphics aren’t snazzy like Jacobin’s but it is ten times smarter. Hamrah should get a medal just for sitting through this garbage.

Starting not long after the NYFCO awards meeting, I got back to the kind of films I really enjoy. I doubt that I will see any this year that is more of a polar opposite to “Crazy Rich Asians” than “Communion”, a Polish cinéma vérité documentary about a family that is not only at the bottom of the economic ladder but burdened by serious problems that would challenge even a billionaire’s. Opening tomorrow at the IFC in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles, the lead subject is a 14-year old girl named Ola who is effectively the family head. With a 13-year old autistic brother Nikodem being prepped for his communion and an unemployed alcoholic father to look after, her perseverance and grace under fire is something to behold.

Nikodem’s autism is probably at the higher end of the spectrum since he is engaged with his sister and father but mostly on his own terms. They don’t treat him as ill but simply as someone prone to misbehavior. Happiest when he is taking a bath, he is chided by Ola for using up too much bubble bath. You first get the impression that he is not “normal” by the sight of his hands fluttering nonstop in the air, as if he were a flamenco dancer on methamphetamine. He also has a remarkable vocabulary for any 13-year old, let alone one with autism. When the words come tumbling out, they have a vaguely oracular quality. Early on, Ola is looking through his communion preparation notebook and chastising him for the inappropriate entries, one per page and accompanied by illustrations: “No Mongols allowed”, “Life is a Rat”, “He was born to be a Rat”, “When Jesus was born, the dinosaurs…”, “Most of the dinosaurs…”, “The End of Jesus”. As she tears each page out of the notebook, he squeals in complaint. You really have to wonder how he will make it through communion with notes like this. On top of that, when he is in a training session with a priest over how to understand sin, Nikodem disagrees with the notion that gluttony is a sin. How can eating as much as you want be a sin?

In addition to its intimate portraiture of an unlikely family, “Communion” is a sharp-eyed examination of the empty rituals of the Catholic Church in Poland. Ola keeps pressuring Nikodem to memorize his responses to the questions put to him in the communion ritual without worrying too much whether he understands them or not. I went through a similar exercise when I was his age, learning Hebrew to recite my bar mitzvah haftarah but had no clue what the words meant.

Rounding out the cast is Marek, a chain-smoking, beer-swigging wastrel whose wife has left him for obvious reasons (she makes a brief and touching appearance on the weekend of Nikodem’s communion.) Ironically, it was a chance encounter with him that led to the making of this remarkable film as director Anna Zamecka mentions in her Filmmaker interview:

I was working on a project about the European football championship of 2012; Poland was hosting the games that year. I was shooting at the central train station in Warsaw. There were a lot of foreign tourists coming to the city, and I was filming them attempting to communicate with a ticket cashier who only spoke Polish. She was having a lot of trouble understanding a customer and, as there was a very long line, people were starting to become impatient. This man approached the tourist and started asking him questions in German, then in English, then Spanish, Italian, Serbian, and other languages, wanting to know how he could help him. The guy was French so the two started having a long conversation in French, and Marek eventually helped him to buy his ticket. Unbeknownst to them, I was filming the whole time. I went home and watched the footage and was completely captivated by Marek.

A couple of days later, I was filming in the station again, and I could hear his voice through my headphones. I tracked him down and shyly approached him to introduce myself and confess that I had filmed him the other day. I wanted to know how he knew so many languages. He told me that he was a self-taught linguist. In the ‘80s, he had been selling money to foreign tourists. In order to cheat them, he taught himself to communicate in as many languages as possible. [laughter]

With newspaper coverage about Poland today focused almost exclusively on the Trump-like authoritarianism of the President and the apparent (at least for the time being) willingness of the population to accept it, Anna Zamecka’s film is a reminder of the generous and intelligent spirit of its artists. As a student from the country’s prestigious Wajda school, she pays homage to the great man who it was named after.

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