'Communion' ('Komunia'): Film Review

Quietly wrenching.
1/4/2019

Anna Zamecka's Oscar-shortlisted doc focuses on a young teenager trying to keep her troubled family together.

It's not that unusual, in documentaries and features, to see children forced to become the grown-ups in a family. But rarely is parental abdication as stark as it is in Anna Zamecka's Communion — a doc in which a 14-year-old Polish girl tries to prepare her autistic brother for a Catholic ritual while their parents struggle through their own unexplained dramas. Upsetting but too curious to wallow in misery (and blessed with a few grace notes), the film pays tribute to a girl who rarely indulges in the self-centeredness that comes with adolescence. Shortlisted for this year's doc Oscar, the out-of-nowhere pic lacks the obvious appeal of competitors like RBG and Won't You Be My Neighbor?; but many who see its qualifying theatrical run will mark Zamecka as a filmmaker to watch.

Our first introduction to the Kaczanowska family is through Nikodem, an autistic 13-year-old having trouble dressing himself. "Wrong, wrong, wrong," he complains to himself, perhaps as amused as he is frustrated: "Can't put his own belt on." Nikodem finds it hard to keep quiet, and his continuous self-narration occasionally results in weirdly funny bursts of surrealism: Later, pacing through an empty church after a lesson, he stands behind the pulpit and growls, "I am the Lord, I am a demi-god! Flee this church, for I make mysterious virtues."

Nikodem is convinced that gluttony is no vice, and given the family's no-frills apartment, you can see why charity is such a difficult concept to embrace. He sleeps in a bed with his father, a few feet from his sister Ola's narrow bed. Their mother is somewhere else, tending to a newborn presumably fathered by another man; though we gather she was a chaotic factor in the household, and the place isn't even big enough for these three, she is clearly missed.

Dad is pretty worthless, spending far too much time at his local bar while Ola takes care of Nikodem and the house. "Dad, Jesus, who are you kidding?," she complains when he tries to deny how much he drinks; though we almost never see her pity herself, Ola isn't shy about begging him to take some of the burden of parenting off her back.

Making herself invisible, Zamecka captures surprisingly intimate moments between Ola and Nikodem, as the big sister patiently tears the crazy stuff out of his school notebooks and coaches him for the test he'll take before being given his first communion. Though he's fidgety and distracted, Niko absorbs more of the lessons than he seems to.

We're fully invested in this dynamic when the kids' mother reenters their lives, first to attend the communion and then in what could be a more lasting way. Zamecka leaves us wanting much more of the backstory — "With her, anything's possible," Dad says, but we don't know what kind of misbehavior split the family up — but she sticks with direct observation, never asking the kids a question or explaining things in titles onscreen.

A couple of times in its midsection, the doc offers glimpses of the more normal side of Ola's life — hanging out with girls her age, teasing boys at what might be her first school dance. Then she'll come home to a passed-out father and a mess that needs cleaning. Are we watching the origin story of an uncommonly self-reliant young woman, or seeing the stresses that will soon push Ola into ill-advised relationships of her own?

Production companies: Wajda Studio, HBO Europe, Otter Films
Director-screenwriter: Anna Zamecka
Producers: Anna Wydra, Anna Zamecka, Zuzanna Król, Izabela Łopuch, Hanka Kastelicová
Director of photography: Małgorzata Szyłak
Editors: Agnieszka Glińska, Anna Zamecka

In Polish
72 minutes