'53 Wars' ('53 Wojna'): Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2018

Gripping scenes from a war-torn marriage.

A young woman suffers post-traumatic breakdown triggered by her husband's dangerous job in first-time director Ewa Bukowska's psychological thriller.

A powerful first feature from Polish actor-turned-director Ewa Bukowska, 53 Wars charts the mental and emotional breakdown of a young Polish mother married to a thrill-seeking war reporter. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Grazyna Jagielska, this compact psychological thriller is chiefly an impressive showcase for its star Magdalena Poplawska, whose pent-up intensity dominates almost every scene. World premiering last week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Bukowska's classy debut should grab further festival slots ahead of its domestic theatrical launch in October. Its ambitious genre blend, marrying suspense and horror tropes to a tormented love story, could also pique interest internationally.

Former photojournalist Anna (Poplawska) has grudgingly put her career on hold to raise two young sons while her war correspondent husband Witek (Michal Zurawski) pinballs perpetually from one conflict zone to another: Chechnya, Afghanistan, Georgia, Ingushetia and so on. Restless and distracted during his irregular visits home, Witek is a shadowy presence in the film, but clearly addicted to danger for a mix of noble and selfish reasons.

As most of the screenplay's vaguely defined time frame takes place in the 1990s, before widespread cellphone and internet use, contact between Anna and Witek is sporadic and scratchy. During his long absences, she suffers constant terror of hearing that he has been killed on some faraway frontline. But it is one of the subtle strengths of Bukowska's adapted screenplay that these anxieties are all churned up within a complex mix of emotions, including competitive career jealousy and resentment over the division of labor between husband and wife. Spiked with agreeably chewy feminist subtext, 53 Wars is in part a domestic horror story crafted by a heavily female cast and crew.

As Anna's anguish builds, her mother (Dorota Kolak) offers some brutally frank advice: "Get a divorce wile you're still young and find yourself a normal man." Indeed, divorce looks like a serious option during one of Witek's fraught visits home, but Anna's passionate, unbreakable bond with him is both a source of agony and ecstasy. Grief is the price we pay for love. Increasingly isolated from family and friends, Anna's grip on reality begins to slip. As she succumbs to self-harm and paranoid hallucinations, 53 Wars edges into psychological horror territory. These scenes are the strongest in the pic, with echoes of Polanski's classic home-alone thriller Repulsion.

Bukowka makes effective use of scrambled timelines, harsh audio cues and warped visuals to convey Anna's fragmentary psyche. Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk illustrates her deepening sense of dislocation with uncomfortable close-ups, occluded and obstructed viewpoints while Natalia Fiedorczuk-Cieslak's score jostles for space against a constant sound-bed of disquieting rumbles, buzzes and crackles, including a memorably abrasive interlude with a jackhammer road drill. Poplawska's committed performance, snarly and febrile without tipping over into histrionics, keeps all this feverish mania plausible.

As an overall package, 53 Wars is a very strong debut which only wobbles a little in its final act, when Anna is finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and confined to a nightmarish hospital ward. This sudden lurch into lurid melodrama feels abrupt and confusing, but it is neither long nor jarring enough to sabotage the rest of Bukowska's film, an otherwise exemplary lesson in creating maximum psychological tension with minimal means.

Production companies: Munk Studio, Polish Filmmakers Association, Canal+ Poland, The Chimney Poland, Wojciech Kabarowski Digital Movies
Cast: Magdalena Poplawska, Michal Zurawski, Kinga Preis, Dorota Kolak, Krzysztof Stroinski
Director: Ewa Bukowska
Screenwriter: Ewa Bukowska, based on the book by Grazyna Jagielska
Cinematographer: Tomasz Naumiuk
Editor: Agnieszka Glinska
Music: Natalia Fiedorczuk-Cieslak
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Sales: Munk Studio, Poland

79 minutes