'Spoor' ('Pokot'): Film Review | Berlin 2017

Well aimed, but ultimately off-target.

A militant animal rights advocate becomes embroiled in a series of local killings in director Agnieska Holland’s hunting-season murder mystery.

Picture Miss Marple as a vegetarian hippy and animal rights activist living in Fargo, and you have the blueprint for Duszejko, the gray-haired protag of Agnieska Holland’s Spoor. When a series of mysterious murders begins knocking off the hunting club in a small mountain community, she finds herself in the middle of the action. But unlike Agatha Christie’s immortal detective, she’s hopelessly entangled with the people and proceedings around her, and her conclusions are based on emotional evidence, not shrewd deduction.

Full of spectacular nature shots of deer and boar scampering through snowy virgin forests, the film could find art house audiences on the sheer beauty of its production. Animal rights groups might well embrace it as a landmark.

But even they may hesitate over the radical conclusions in the final scenes of co-writer Olga Tokarczuk’s novel. Whereas Ulrich Seidl’s memorable doc Safari connected the dots between wealth, power and the self-aggrandizing joy of killing animals, Holland focuses on the insensitivity and sadism that motivates hunters. As Duszejko (Agnieska Mandat), a former civil engineer turned eccentric old lady and astrologer, keeps saying to anyone who will listen, the law is on their side — along with the Catholic church and the police force. Schoolchildren are taught to celebrate hunting season in joyful song. (Haneke, anyone?) Even the story’s tempo is marked by an info-calendar stating what animals it’s legal to shoot that month.

Not that the hunters and poachers abide by the law. Embroiled in gambling, prostitution and skinning foxes alive, they are so evil they appear inhuman and beyond moral bounds. The antagonism between the passionate Duszejko and these obtuse monsters keeps the tension high as the murders accumulate. Spoor is the trail left by a wild animal, and she is woodswoman enough to notice the odd coincidence of hoof prints that always appear around the scene of the crimes. Could the fed-up forest critters have done it, she wonders?

An atmosphere of ancient magic is established in the opening shots of antlers peeping out of fog that rolls down the forested mountains on the Polish-Czech border. The camera lifts up to follow a flock of jeeps converging on a crime scene. Not far away lives Duszejko in a rambling woodsy house with her two beloved dogs, who she calls her closest friends and her “daughters.” When they disappear, she is heart-broken and suspects they have been shot by hunters.

Her same-generation neighbor Matoga (Wiktor Zborowski), who also has a few secrets in the basement, alerts her to the death of a poacher who lives nearby; in his cabin she finds a photograph that sends her off. From that point on, she becomes hysterical at the drop of a hat, an old crazy whom the police prefer to avoid as much as they can. But she’s also a warm, caring and sexually attractive woman.

It’s a meaty role for stage and film actress Mandat, whose very real pain at the thought of animals’ suffering commands sympathy, though eventually a little tedium. A tighter edit could avoid a lot of surplus emotions and possibly clarify a number of obscure plot points. Why, for instance, does she appear with red scabs all over her face in two consecutive scenes? And why does she refuse to be called by her first name?  

The other characters, by contrast, are alarmingly sketchy and ill-developed. Dyzio (Jakub Gierszal) is an eager-beaver young techie who works for the police but whose loyalty belongs to Duszejko. A pretty girl (Patricia Volny) struggling with the after-effects of an abusive family is thrown in, and at the eleventh hour a craggy entomologist (Miroslav Krobot) turns up in the forest after another corpse is discovered. They all seem like secondary TV characters mismatched with serious issues, majestic settings and Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz’s thrilling, threatening score.

Holland, who had a hit a few years back with the HBO Europe spy series set during the Cold War, Burning Bush, is a mistress of spare, elegant shots that show just enough to advance the story. Her daughter Kasia Adamik (the director of Bark!) is credited as associate director, though it would be hard to extricate their contributions.

Production companies: Tor Film Production, in association with Heimatfilm, Nutprodukce Prague, Chimney, Nutprodukcia Bratislava
Cast: Agnieszka Mandat, Wiktor Zborowski, Miroslav Krobot, Jakub Gierszal, Patricia Volny
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Associate director: Kasia Adamik
Screenwriters: Olga Tokarczuk, Agnieszka Holland based on Tokarczuk’s novel
Producers: Krzysztof Zanussi, Janusz Wachala
Executive producer: Janusz Wachala
Directors of photography: Jolanta Dylewska, Rafal Paradowski
Production designer: Joanna Macha
Costume designer: Katarzyna Lewinska
Editor: Pavel Hrdlicka
Music: Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz
Casting: Weronika Migon
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
Sales: Beta Cinema

128 minutes