Retrieval (Z Odzysku)

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Opus Film

PALM SPRINGS -- With the striking opening scenes of "Retrieval," set amid the din and grime of a cement factory's mines, first-time director Slawomir Fabicki plunges the viewer into a gray world of little hope. Following 19-year-old Wojtek as he tries to make a living and falls into the clutches of a local crime boss, the film takes a familiar trajectory. But it does so with bracing freshness and well-etched milieu. Poland's foreign-language Oscar submission -- a selection of the recent Palm Springs fest -- could, in the hands of the right distributor, find an appreciative niche audience.

In the Silesia region of Poland, Wojtek (well-cast newcomer Antoni Pawlicki) walks away from his cement-factory job after a co-worker falls to his death in the mineshaft. Determined to make a better life for himself, his slightly older girlfriend, Katia (Natalya Vdovina), and her young son, Andrij (Dimitri Melnichuk), he ends up trading obvious perils for those of a more insidious sort.

His amateur boxing draws the attention of small-time big shot Darius Gazda (Jacek Braciak), who offers him a relatively high-paying job as a nightclub bouncer. The young man's conscience proves a problem when his belligerent colleague Kalafior (Wojciech Zielinski) tries to involve him in drug-selling and guns.

When, with the help of his boss, Wojtek rents a huge apartment, Katia at first seems willfully ignorant of the nature of his work. But in the sparsely furnished oversize rooms, her perpetual worry deepens. Vdovina infuses Katia, an illegal Ukrainian immigrant who is harboring a secret, with an elemental sadness. She's both wary of and thankful for Wojtek's more whimsical impulses, like buying a beat-up Victrola at a country mart. But things between them grow poisoned the more Wojtek yields to the paternal interest of Gazda, a ruthless family man who Braciak plays with compelling understatement.

Wojtek's self-loathing explodes in drunken rage, the only cliched moment in this involving drama. It closes, much as it opens, with an extraordinarily visceral sequence -- in a river rather than a subterranean pit. Throughout, Bogumil Godfrejow's mostly hand-held camerawork is apt and affecting.
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