Reverse -- Film Review

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PALM SPRINGS -- A playful genre mash-up of black comedy, period drama and thriller, "Reverse" ("Rewers") takes a sly look at life in 1950s communist Poland, centering on a fateful encounter between a bookish young woman and a member of the secret police. That country's submission for the foreign-language Oscar has reaped awards and strong boxoffice receipts on its home turf and recently received its North American premiere in Palm Springs. Continued fest slots are certain, although the film's cultural references will have more resonance with Eastern European audiences.

The good-looking widescreen film, shot mainly in a B&W that's rich with inky shadows, is the debut narrative feature of documentarian Borys Lankosz, and the first production in 15 years from Studio Kadr, home of some of Poland's leading filmmakers of the '50s and '60s.

Most of the story takes place in 1952 Warsaw, where the unmarried status of bespectacled Sabina (Agata Buzek), a 30-ish poetry editor for a publishing house, inspires urgent concern in her mother (Krystyna Janda) and grandmother (Anna Polony). When Irena isn't zeroing in on prospective suitors for her daughter and baking cakes for their visits, she frets over a gold coin in her possession that could land her in serious trouble with the authorities. Sabina finds an innovative, if mildly gruesome, solution -- hinting at some of the more grotesque comedy that lies ahead. A quarter-hour in, the film switches briefly to color for the first of several present-day sequences involving the elderly Sabina.

Back in the Stalinist reign of terror, a starnge meeting between the young Sabina and the trench coat-clad Bronislaw (Marcin Dorocinski) quickly develops into a romance. To speed things along, Irena pointedly leaves her daughter and the suave tough guy unchaperoned in the apartment. The consequences of that decision play out with escalating dark mischief, eventually involving Sabina's artist brother (Lukasz Konopka), while her bedridden but sharp-as-a-tack grandmother never misses a beat.

Lankosz and cinematographer Marcin Koszalka make particularly apt use of thick patches of gloom in the late stretches of the '50s-set material. Archival footage, used sparingly throughout, takes on heightened significance when it depicts the massive construction site of the Palace of Culture and Science, Poland's tallest building. Such references work beautifully within the plot, but their full emotional impact is reserved for those who have an intimate connection with the historical landscape.

Compared with the artfully composed B&W scenes, the color interludes have a drained, perfunctory aspect, and the overdone aging makeup is less than convincing. This weakens the final scene, if not the entertaining, well-acted and unpredictable story that precedes it, all of it tied together with a terrific jazz-inflected score.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival

Production companies: A Studio Filmowe Kadr, WFDiF, Syrena Films, with the support of the Polish Film Institute
World sales: Syrena Films
Cast: Agata Buzek, Krystyna Janda, Anna Polony, Marcin Dorocinski, Adam Woronowicz, Bronislaw Wroclawski, Lukasz Konopka
Director: Borys Lankosz
Screenwriter: Andrzej Bart
Producer: Jerzy Kapuscinski
Director of photography: Marcin Koszalka
Music: Wlodek Pawlik
Costume designer: Magdalena Biedrzycka
Editor: Wojciech Anuszczyk
No rating, 101 minutes
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