(2013) Drama (Under the Milky Way) Dawid Ogrodnik, Dorota Kolak, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Helena Sujecka, Mikolaj Roznerski, Kamil Tkacz, Tymoteusz Marciniak, Anna Nehrebecka, Katarzyna Zawadzka, Anna Karczmarczyk, Agnieszka Kotlarska, Janusz Chabior, Gabriela Muskala, Lech Dyblik, Izabela Dabrowska, Marek Kalita, Witold Wielinski, Teresa Iwko. Directed by Maciej Pieprzyca
A young man intones, quite seriously as young men will, that “tits and stars are two of God’s greatest inventions.” Although I know of few young men who would disagree, the man uttering this bit of wisdom is about as extraordinary as he gets.
Young Mateusz (Tkacz) is diagnosed by an officious state doctor (Muskala) as mentally retarded and little more than a vegetable. “You’ll never be able to communicate with him,” she bluntly tells the boy’s frazzled mother (Kolak) and whimsical but loving father (Arkadiusz), “You must learn to accept this.” She recommends putting him in a state facility where he can be cared for properly, but his parents won’t hear of it Dad, a day laborer who has a tendency to put off home projects in order to go out drinking, talks to his son as if his son can understand what he’s saying and shows him how to build things. What nobody realizes is that Mateusz understands every word being said to him.
His father dies young and it is left to his mother, his indifferent sister (Sujecka) and his younger brother (Roznerski) who joins the Polish navy, while the sister gets married and criticizes her mother for dealing with Mateusz so long. Eventually his mom realizes she is no longer physically capable of caring for her son and reluctantly has him sent to a state facility where he’ll be treated as a vegetable.
Now a young man (Ogrodnik), Mateusz is in the process of discovering girls – in particular neighbor Anka (Karczmarczyk) whose stepfather is abusive. Frustrated and unable to do anything about the violence he sees through the window, he manages to figure out a way to get the stepdad out of the way but as Mateusz ruefully notes in a voiceover narration (a very clever device the way it is used here), things don’t work out as Mateusz hoped as Anka and her mother move away.
Still, Mateusz is a handsome young man and he eventually finds another girlfriend – a pretty young aide (Zawadzka) who allows Mateusz to delve into more sexual exploration than he ever has. However, it turns out that she has an agenda of her own and soon Mateusz is alone again, visited only by his mother. Will he ever be able to communicate with the outside world? It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal the answer to that.
Movies like this are often disdained as manipulative tearjerkers, but this one has much more going for it than merely an emotional wallop. For one thing, it’s beautifully shot – the vistas of Poland’s countryside and villages are made pure magic by cinematographer Pawel Dyllus. For another thing, the score is far from maudlin and beautifully underscores the scenes and scenery – you can thank Bartosz Chajdecki for that.
Best of all it has an astounding performance by Ogrodnik who is perfectly healthy although his noises and movements are very realistic for someone who has cerebral palsy (as the real Mateusz actually wound up having). Much of his acting must come from his eyes as his twisted limbs don’t always communicate much, although his facial expressions sometimes reminded me of silent movie actors.
He is well-supported by those who play his mother and father, as well as the redoubtable Anka who has a moment when the two touch fingers beneath a closed door which is all the goodbye the two lovers will get. The scene in which Mateusz communicates with his mother for the first time in his life is absolutely beautiful and any mother of a disabled son will appreciate it, not to mention any moviegoer with any sort of empathy. Believe me, tears will flow.
Poland has been a source for great movies for decades now, and this one is yet another one to add to the list. For my money, it’s likely the best Polish movie to hit these shores since Ida and while it is only getting a direct to VOD release here, it’s one any good cinema buff worth their salt should seek out forthwith.
REASONS TO GO: This may be the best film to come out of Poland since Ida. Tremendous performances abound, particularly from Ogrodnik, Kolak and Zawadzka. The film is beautifully shot.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity and sexual content as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone was attached to the movie before she was. When Julianne Moore who was originally cast as Lee Israel backed out over creative differences, Falcone recommended his wife for the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Left Foot
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: 3100: Run and Become