'The Last Family' ('Ostatnia rodzina'): Locarno Review

The Last Family Still H 2016
Locarno Film Festival
A rigorously low-key portrait of an artist.

Polish veteran Andrzej Seweryn won best actor at Locarno for playing successful but controversial Polish artist Beksinski in director Jan P. Matuszynski's fiction-feature debut.

Home is where the art is in Jan P. Matuszynski's The Last Family (Ostatnia Rodzina), a dutiful and respectful chronicle of the last 28 years in the life of Poland's foremost apocalyptic surrealist Zdzislaw Beksinski. Also giving considerable prominence to the travails of his long-suffering wife Zofia Beksinska and their live-wire son Tomasz, it's a claustrophobic and slightly airless affair mostly set in the troubled trio's Warsaw high-rise apartment. International prospects were boosted a touch by the seasoned veteran Andrzej Seweryn's best actor trophy in Locarno for his unruffled handling of a highly demanding role. Beyond Poland and older-skewing Polish ex-pat communities this is festivals-only fare — with the possible exception of France, where Beksinski's outlandish output were voguish a couple of decades ago.

The self-taught artist's stygian bizarreries — as well as painting, he did sculpted and worked in photography — at their best summon echoes of Francis Bacon, Caspar David Friedrich, H.R. Giger, Rene Magritte and prog-rock album-cover visionary Roger Dean. But Matuszynski and his cinematographer Kacper Fertacz resist any attempt to match Beksinski's trademark phantasmagoric visual style, favoring detachedly observational widescreen compositions which convey the interior spaces of the family's living environment with steely, dunnish verisimilitude.

And while art-director Jagna Janicka and costume-designer Emilia Czartoryska can't be faulted for their evocations of period in this episodic affair — which proceeds in ploddingly linear style after a brief 2005-set prologue — the screenplay by Robert Bolesto (also responsible for an oddball current festival-circuit favorite, mermaid fantasia The Lure) generally avoids contextual chronological signifiers. So although time-stamps are frequently deployed — sometimes via the domestic video-taping which Beksinski senior avidly adopts in the 1980s — proceedings unfold in a kind of bubble, hermetically and somewhat distractingly isolated from the wider world's turbulence.

The period 1977-2005 which the film covers, starting with the family's relocation from their provincial hometown Sanok, was one of seismic upheavals in Warsaw, Poland and across the entire Eastern Bloc — as will be familiar to viewers with only a cursory grasp of post-World War II European history. There's absolutely zero mention here, however, of Communism, of the repressive Soviet-dominated 1980s epoch under General Jaruzelski, of the Solidarity movement under Lech Walesa which eventually overthrew him or of Poland's tricky transition to democracy and capitalism that followed. Bolesto's point is clearly supposed to be that the Beksinskis were fortunate enough to exist in a zone of self-obsessed Bohemianism, paying minimal attention to anything beyond their own doorstep, evidently unbothered by official interference or disapproval.

The infuriatingly unflappable Beksinski senior fits the bill of the isolated artist, devoted entirely to his muse, while his more volatile son 'Tomek' (Dawid Ogrodnik) does respond to wider cultural trends. As we see, he achieved considerable renown as a radio broadcaster — he was an enthusiastic evangelist for early-1980s British pop music — and as a translator for TV and films. He also struggled with mental illness for much of his relatively short life — his suicidal impulses played for laughs at one ill-advised juncture. And he wasn't helped by the volatile atmosphere in a family home where "every tiny thing triggers an avalanche" and where for some time both of his grandmothers resided in stages of geriatric decline.

The lives of Zdiszek and Tomek were the focus of a 2014 nonfiction best-seller by Magdalena Grzebalkowska, titled Beksinski: Double Portrait, a book whose success portends positively for the picture's fate at the Polish box offices. Where the film scores, however, is by making more room for Zofia (Aleksandra Konieczna) — indeed, it functions best as a portrait of an unorthodox marriage, and it's notable that Matuszynski's previous feature-length work, Deep Love (2013), was likewise devoted to spousal affection.

Zofia was a woman who may not have had the creative impulses of her husband and son, but who emerges here as the most compelling and sympathetic character on view, partly thanks to a deft, affecting performance by Aleksandra Konieczna. Like Seweryn, Konieczna is a performer with considerable experience on the Polish stage and she fulfils the same function in the film as Zofia does in the family — holding everything together with an admirably unfussy stoicism.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production company: Aurum Film
Cast: Andrzej Seweryn, Dawid Ogrodnik, Aleksandra Konieczna, Andrzej Chyra
Director: Jan P. Matuszynski
Screenwriter: Robert Bolesto
Producers: Leszek Bodzak, Aneka Hickinbotham
Cinematographer: Kacper Fertacz
Production designer: Jagna Janicka
Costume designer: Emilia Czartoryska
Editor: Przemyslaw Chruscielewski
Sales: New Europe, Warsaw

Not rated, 122 minutes