'Citizen' ('Obywatel'): Film Review

Courtesy of Opus Film
Forrest Gump meets Fellini in this enjoyably irreverent Euro farce

Polish cinema veteran Jerzy Stuhr revisits six decades of post-war history in his latest autobiographical comedy

Like a Central European twist on Forrest Gump, this sprawling farce tracks a hapless everyman figure through 60 eventful years of post-war Polish history. As producer, director, screenwriter and star, Jerzy Stuhr is an all-round auteur in the Mel Brooks mode. Indeed, physically, the two could be cousins. Made following treatment for cancer, Citizen is Stuhr’s most personal film to date. Though a little disjointed and uneven, it builds into an amusing and warm-hearted journey with novelistic texture. The default tone here is absurdist comedy, but laced with lyrical nostalgia too, particularly in a monochrome finale which pays homage to Federico Fellini’s classic autobiographical drama 8½.

Already a box office hit domestically, Citizen was made by the same production company as Paweł Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winner Ida, and is full of nods to the pantheon of Polish cinema greats. Stuhr himself is a seasoned screen veteran who has acted for Krzysztof Kieślowski, Agnieszka Holland and Andrzej Wajda. He also dubbed the donkey’s voice in the Shrek movies for Poland. His cinematographer here is Paweł Edelman, best known for his exemplary work with Roman Polanski. Currently touring the international festival circuit, the movie screened at Kinoteka in London last month before playing to packed houses at the GoEast festival in Germany last week.

The story opens in contemporary post-Communist Poland with high-ranking politician Jan Bratek (Stuhr) piously professing his Catholic faith on a TV talk show before being exposed as a fraud. On leaving the studio, a freak accident plunges him into a coma, a narrative device that allows Bratek to float freely through the last 60 years of Polish history. In true Gump style, he is an eternal innocent caught up in the grand sweep of events, from the anti-Semitism of the post-war years to the student protests of the late 1960s and the Moscow-backed martial law crackdown of the early 1980s.

Bratek is more anti-hero than hero, keeping his head down, trying to dodge trouble, perpetually dreaming of escaping Poland but always failing. Satirical irony is laid on pretty thickly here, especially when a string of tragicomic mishaps lands Bratek behind bars, where he marries his prison psychiatrist and ends up an unlikely poster boy for the emergent Solidarity resistance movement. In these early chapters, Bratek is played by Stuhr’s grown-up son Maciej Stuhr, a smart piece of organic lookalike casting. Later, during a dramatic crisis, Stuhr Senior replaces Junior mid-scene. “I aged decades that night” quips the knowing voiceover.

Citizen is visually appealing, largely thanks to Edelman, who flatters the oatmeal drabness of Poland’s Communist era with the painterly palette of vintage tinted postcards. The monochrome sequences are also ravishing, self-consciously referencing the stylish look of classic New Wave cinema much like Ida did. Some of the in-jokes may baffle foreign audiences, notably a final symbolic twist involving the colors of the Polish flag. Recurring references to anti-Semitism, still a live and controversial issue in Poland, also feel a little too local. But overall, Stuhr’s picaresque dance to the music of time contains enough sharp insights into human and political folly to succeed as a universal comic parable.

Production company: Opus Film

Cast: Jerzy Stuhr, Maciej Stuhr, Aleksander Krom, Barbara Horawianka, Gosia Dobrowolska, Magdalena Boczarska

Director, screenwriter: Jerzy Stuhr

Producers: Jerzy Stuhr, Łukasz Dzięcioł

Cinematographer: Paweł Edelman

Editor: Milenia Fiedler

Music: Adrian Konarski

Casting: Sylwia Czaplewska

Sales company: Opus Film, Wodz

Unrated, 108 minutes