Now that I have fulfilled my obligations to New York Film Critics Online by watching just enough Hollywood crapola to allow me to fill out a ballot for our December 8th awards meeting, I can return to the kind of film that really matters to me and presumably my readers. As the first post-NYFCO awards film reviewed by me, “Two Lessons” is the perfect example of why I would prefer a low-budget Polish language documentary that cost perhaps $50,000 to make over something like “Gravity”.
Opening today at the Maysles Theater in Harlem, “Two Lessons” is an exquisitely beautiful and spiritually elevated study of rural poverty in Siberia and Argentina pivoting around director Wojciech Staron’s wife Malgosia, who was sent by the Polish government to give Polish language lessons to émigré communities after 1989 when nationalism took the place of Communism. Although it is a documentary, the filmmaker whose work it bears the closest resemblance to is that of French Catholic New Wave narrative film director Robert Bresson, especially his “Diary of a Country Priest”.
One of my favorite Bresson quotes is “Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the cracks”, words that describe “Two Lessons” to a tee. Like the young priest in Bresson’s classic who arrives in a country village on a mission to save souls, Malgosia Staron (she was the director’s girlfriend at the time) comes to Usolie-Siberskoe in 1998 in order to preserve culture. What she and Wojciech rapidly discover is that the citizenry is also in need of material salvation, facing one hardship or another in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. This is a people who never benefited from the “free market” revolution led by Yeltsin and Putin. Malgosia arrives in the middle of a teacher’s strike. After not having been paid in months, they are ready to confront the new rulers whose contempt for working people is well understood by the teachers who carry a portrait of Lenin at a rally.
That being said, this is not a social protest film even though the director’s sympathy is with those at the bottom. Instead it is a beautiful and moving portrait of people living in a forbidding realm who manage to make the best of their lives despite all sorts of challenges. While the primary inspiration seems to be Bresson, the film also evokes Werner Herzog’s “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”, a riveting portrait of hunters and trappers in Siberia. When not focused on Malgosia’s lessons to her students, her boyfriend’s camera is trained on a number of local “personalities”, including a Pole who is determined to translate the bible from Polish into Russia just as an exercise. There are scenes of ice-fishing, local dances, church gatherings, and many landscapes that appear inspired by the Bressonian stricture: “Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the cracks”.
If there was ever a reason to go slow on the digital revolution, it is this film which was made with a 16-millimeter camera—probably a necessity given the year when it was made. It is a reminder that film can capture images in a way that digital cameras never can unless they are prohibitively expensive. It would appear that director Wojciech Staron made part one of “Two Lessons” with a one-man crew, namely himself. This is a miracle of filmmaking and an inspiration to anybody working in the field including a patzer like myself.
Part two of “Two Lessons” was made possible by Malgosia’s assignment to work in Azara, Argentina but the film is much more about the struggle of an 11-year-old Polish girl named Marcia to eke out a living with the Staron’s 8-year-old son Janek in tow.
Marcia’s parents have fallen on hard times and she is forced to make bricks, pick yerba mate leaves, or sell ice from a roadside stand to help her mother make ends meet. Her father has separated from the mother out of a combination of financial difficulties and personal strife, no doubt aggravated by the failing economy. (The film was made in 2011, supposedly after Argentina’s economic recovery, which like Russia’s never seemed to have filtered down to the rural backwaters.)
As is the case with part one, the focus is on human relationships and the solace of natural beauty rather than the class struggle. In one of more captivating scenes, the young Staron teaches the older and much more assertive Marcia how to swim.
At the risk of sounding like a hack reviewer hyping something like “Gravity” or “Inside Llewyn Davis”, I would describe this film as breathtakingly beautiful and a reminder of Polish filmmaking when people like Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda were in their heyday. That the underfunded Wojciech Staron can be mentioned in the same breath as such masters should be recommendation enough.