The Christening -- Film Review

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SAN SEBASTIAN � Steely and absorbing in its downbeat toughness, "The Christening" ("Chrzest") is one of the more accomplished and satisfying mainstream thrillers to emerge from eastern Europe in the last couple of years. Already a multiple award-winner at Poland's national film festival in Gdynia, this sophomore effort from director Marcin Wrona (after 2009's "My Flesh, My Blood") has screened here and in Toronto en route to widespread festival exposure and further prizes.

Gdynia's jury recognized co-leads Wojciech Zielinski and Tomasz Schuchardt for their performances in the central roles. And while there's certainly nothing wrong with Schuchardt's work, it's Zielinski who dominates the screen with a superb, genuinely powerhouse turn as Michal, a twentysomething father of a newborn boy whose baptism is imminent.

In the week leading up to the ceremony, each day is marked by title-cards that divide up the action with tension-building efficiency, successful Warsaw businessman Michal asks his longtime pal, hot-headed soldier Janek (Schuchardt) to be godfather.

Such a role, of course, traditionally involves stepping in to help raise the child should anything untoward happen to the biological parents. And that's exactly what Michal is dreading -- sooner rather than later -- thanks to his ongoing entanglement with vengeful, viciously violent gangsters from his past.

The clever overall design of Grzegorz Jankowski, Grazyna Trela and Dariusz Glazer's screenplay is gradually revealed as the big day approaches, with certain details borrowed from classic crime-world dramas. But rather than simply recycling old ideas, "The Christening" socks over its intriguing premise with brutal stylishness -- downbeat wide-screen 35mm cinematography by Pawel Flis is crucial in this regard -- and emotionally resonant intensity, all the way to a stimulating and ambiguous finale.

A probing examination of masculinity, fatherhood and friendship, set against a lightly-sketched background of a fast-changing modern Poland, "The Christening" is essentially a universal tale and could easily lend itself to a Stateside transplant.

Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival
Production company: Odeon; Polish Film Institute
Cast: Wojciech Zielinski, Tomasz Schuchardt, Natalia Rybicka, Adam Woronowicz, Michal Koterski
Director: Marcin Wrona
Screenwriters: Grzegorz Jankowski, Grazyna Trela, Dariusz Glazer
Producer: Leszek Rybarczyk, Marek Rudnicki
Director of photography: Pawel Flis
Production designer: Dorota Lacek-Gorczyca
Music: Marcin Macuk
Costume designer: Katarzyna Srodka
Editor: Piotr Kmiecik
Sales: m-appeal, Berlin
No rating, 86 minutes
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