Emptiness and longing afflict the sad residents of a wealthy gated community outside an ugly Polish city, until a mysterious visitor arrives offering massages with his strong, healing hands. At that point they realize what is missing from their lives and find it almost within their grasp. Co-directed with her creative partner Michal Englert, Malgorzata Szumowska’s elusive Never Gonna Snow Again (Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie) is a magical film, but it won’t be every viewer’s cup of tea. In Venice competition it was one of the films that most pushed the envelope technically and thematically and could be a strong outsider for festival recognition, along with actor Alec Utgoff in the main role.
Just as it takes trust to allow oneself to be hypnotized, and suspended disbelief to enjoy a magic show, this is a film that requires willingness to reach well past narrative expectations. With each new film, the ranking Polish filmmaker Szumowska seems to be breaking new ground with off-beat stories that challenge the audience to find a door into them. Of her most recent work, Mug described a man who has a face transplant and The Other Lamb ventured into a messianic cult of women around a macho male leader.
In the new film, Szumowska and her regular co-screenwriter and DP Michal Englert co-direct a story about a luminous Ukrainian masseur, Zhenia (Utgoff), who goes from house to house in a wealthy Polish suburb using his hands to heal not only the bodies but the souls of his clients. There is no logical explanation for what he does. Less mystically inclined viewers can put his results down to pranotherapy or some such, but an equal case can be made that he is an angelic Christian figure (he wears a gold cross around his neck).
Played with delicious ambiguity by the fascinating Utgoff (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Stranger Things), Zhenia cuts an outlandish figure. His working clothes are black pants and a deeply cut undershirt which, added to his otherworldly face, give him the look of a circus strongman or a muscular ballet dancer. A small backstory is concocted in flashbacks showing his childhood in Chernobyl with his young mother. On his seventh birthday, the city’s nuclear power plant exploded, which might go a long way in explaining his uncanny powers. Sadly, they weren’t enough to save his mother from radiation poisoning.
The opening sequence, a tour-de-force montage of brilliant cinematography, shows that Zhenia means business. Stepping out of a mystical forest, he makes his way to a forbidding Soviet-style building where he boldly requests residence papers from the reigning bureaucrat. The man’s deathly face bodes no good. But with a pass of his magic hands, Zhenia puts him to sleep and stamps his own documents.
Lodging in a depressing Polish high-rise in a crane-ridden city that seems to be trying to construct itself, every morning he lugs his folding massage table to a gated community lined with identical Monopoly houses. There, with his miraculous massages, he relaxes the tense, unhappy rich people who uneasily live out meaningless lives. “I’m taking away your misery and sickness with my hands,” he drones softly.
And he does more: His eyes penetrate the souls of the harried, dissatisfied women and the nervous, frustrated men he treats. He’s strong, gentle, attractive and has the innocence of an outsider from the East. After a few visits his clients suggest that a sexual follow-up would not be out of bounds.
The story has a lot in common with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial 1968 allegory Teorema, in which a mysterious stranger (Terence Stamp) suddenly appears in a bourgeois Milanese household and makes love to every member of the family — mother, father, son, daughter and maid — changing their lives with personal epiphanies before he vanishes again. Considered a scandal when it was made and later a masterpiece with Christian overtones, Teorema emphasizes sexual liberation much more than Never Gonna Snow Again finds it necessary to do fifty years later.
Here Zhenia calmly deals with his clients’ requests for intimacy by hypnotizing them into pleasant dreams. His own sexual orientation is a guess: At one point he visits an erotic peep show and appears to watch both male and female dancers perform. And there is one character he calls “a good woman” who clearly turns him on. In this and other ways, Zhenia is a more 3-D figure than Terence Stamp’s visitor from beyond.
In the updated Eastern setting, Szumowska and Englert describe the alcohol, tobacco, drugs and anger that keep people ill: There is widespread wealth in the suburbs but also unhappy children and back-biting neighbors, men dying of cancer and deluding themselves that they’re getting better, women who love their dogs more than people. Yet there’s also room for some gentle humor, like a recurrent joke about doorbells, each ringing a more pretentious snatch of classical music.
The technical work is a joy to watch, particularly Englert’s inspired lighting that gives Utgoff’s face the strange features of an angel. Costumes and production design underline the expensive emptiness of the living spaces.
Production companies: Lava Films, Match Factory Productions, Kino Swiat, Mazowia Warsaw Film Fund, Di Factory, Bayerischer Rundfunk with Arte
Cast: Alec Utgoff, Maya Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza, Weronika Rosati, Katarzyna Figura, Andrzej Chyra, Lukasz Simiat
Directors: Malgorzata Szumowska with Michal Englert
Screenwriters: Michal Englert, Malgorzata Szumowska
Producers: Agnieszka Wasiak, Mariusz Wlodarski, Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert, Viola Fugen, Michael Weber
Director of photography: Michal Englert
Editors: Jaroslaw Kaminski, Agata Cierniak
Production designer: Jagna Janicka
Costume designer: Katarzyna Lewinska
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: The Match Factory