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The deep roots of prejudice in small-town Poland are scornfully exposed in Mug (Twarz), Malgorzata Szumowska’s HKIFF entry about a carefree joker from the hinterlands who becomes Poland’s first recipient of a face transplant following an accident. It’s surprising how well-heeled and low-key the drama is, given the shock value of the premise. But even if it’s not the edgiest of the director’s films, this study in weathering adversity and adjusting to what life hands you makes some worthy points about human and institutional callousness.
As usual, Szumowska brings out the role of the Catholic Church in creating family and community sentiment around issues of diversity. Not only does the nice priest fail to rally his parishioners to help the accident victim in his hour of need, he even goes along with some of their wilder fantasies. But something else is happening in the peaceful town on the lake. Funded by the donations of the faithful, a 108-foot concrete Christ statue is going up, and it’s going to be bigger and better than the Rio de Janeiro Christ. (This is a real story: The colossus went up in the town of Swiebodzin in 2010 and entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest Christ.)
Sidestepping the identity crisis of so many Face Offs and mask films, Mug takes a more realistic tack, though one peppered with welcome elements of surreal black humor. One of these is the bizarre opening sequence in which men and women of all ages strip to their underwear and run screaming through a store that is featuring an “Underwear Stampede Christmas Sale.” Among the mad shoppers is our hero Jacek, whose shoulder-length hair makes him look like a latter-day tattooed Jesus. Actor Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, who sported a similar look in In the Name Of, plays the rebel caught up in the town and his family, while he daydreams of finding a way out. Only his married sister (Agnieszka Podsiadlik), trapped in her own life of stymied ambition, takes his side when he’s criticized for his eccentric looks and tastes — heavy metal, driving his tiny car at breakneck speed, the frivolous blonde party girl he wants to marry (Malgorzata Gorol).
Everything normal changes one day when Jacek, who is helping to construct Christ the King, has a dramatic fall right inside the huge statue. Miraculously he survives, but only after doctors graft another man’s face onto his. The fall, the ambulance and the hospital scenes are shot by Michal Englert (who also co-scripted) with admirable sobriety, never allowing us a glimpse of Jacek’s features.
The new Jacek is only unveiled when he returns home to the village, where much is made of the horror of his looks. But what we see is just a little worse than a prizefighter’s swollen features and shut eyes after a punishing match. True, he looks more like Raging Bull than Jesus Christ now, but he’s a far cry from a monster, and compared to the victim of an acid attack, for example, he looks more battered than disfigured. He can’t speak clearly, but the doctors say he will regain speech farther down the line. Yet his own mother (played by the excellent Anna Tomaszewska) refuses to look at him and claims he’s not her son — she feels he’s been possessed by the spirit of “the other one,” the boy whose face he has received.
Mocked by schoolkids, laughed at by drunks and, worst of all, shunned by Dagmara, the silly girl he still loves, Jacek finds a helping hand only from his loyal sister. She organizes his medications and general rehab, along with fielding advertising contracts that bank on his national notoriety. Hers is the only moral support in sight.
The infuriating foolishness of people in this picture-postcard village is further evidenced in a casual exchange of slurs against the gypsies who work on the construction site and some hair-raising racist jokes at the dinner table. Before his accident, Jacek guffawed at them, too. One wonders if he still would.
Production company: Nowhere
Cast: Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, Agnieszka Podsiadlik, Malgorzata Gorol, Anna Tomaszewska, Dariusz Chojnacki, Robert Talarczyk, Roman Gancarczyk, Iwona Bielska
Director: Malgorzata Szumowska
Screenwriters: Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert
Producers: Jacek Drosio, Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert
Executive producer: Inga Kruk
Director of photography: Michal Englert
Production designer: Marek Zawierucha
Costume designers: Katarzyna Lewinska, Julia Jarza-Brataniec
Editor: Jacek Drosio
Music: Adam Walicki
World sales: Memento Films International