Monday, February 16, 2009

Film review: Tricks (Sztuczki)

Dir: Andrzej Jakimowski
Cast: Damian Ul, Ewelina Walendziak, Rafal Guzniczak
Country: Poland

Every once in a while I get to walk into the cinema knowing next to nothing about the film I’m about to see. It isn’t very often and the results are largely unpredictable. So much about choosing a film is about mood, or for critics who are watching film every day not matter what, it is instead about mood preparation...

When I walked into Tricks it might have been with the sense of trepidation armed only with the knowledge that I was about to watch a small, award-winning Polish drama “told from a six-year old’s perspective.” Not much to go on to be sure, though the child, Polish and award-winning elements might have seeded subconscious expectations of the grim-realism variety. Rarely have I been more wrong, Tricks is one of the most unanticipated, charming and enjoyable cinematic experiences informed by a streak of magical realism that I’ve had since Amélie or perhaps when I saw my first film by Hayao Miyazaki.

Director Andrzej Jakimowski has taken a big idea and explored oh so elegantly in a small film, with small contexts and an even smaller lead. Ten-year old Damian Ul carries the majority of the film on his little shoulders as Stefek; a young, fatherless boy whose working class village makes for his own personal sandpit. Stefek leads quite the solitary life outside of his relationship with sister Elka (Ewelina Walendziak) and her boyfriend Jerzy (Rafal Guzniczak); never playing with other children and interacting more out of a sense of curiosity than anything else with the colourful collection of character that inhabit his (and the film’s) world.

One of these characters (though far from the most colourful) is a somewhat non-descript man who routinely catches the same train each morning on his way to work. Stefek loiters at the train station everyday to watch this man whom he believes is his father based on an old defaced picture he carries around. Elka warns Stefek to stay away from the man. It is here that the film’s title Tricks comes into play.

The big idea Jakimowski explores is our ability to nudge, lure and generally manipulate fate to our own ends. Elka and Stefek play games to see how they can bend fate and while Stefek tries to force events to take a certain course Elka merely bribes them in a way that parodies Aesop’s fable of The North Wind And The Sun. As a result of what Elka teaches him, Stefek sets about orchestrating an elaborate and slightly ingenious scheme to steer his estranged father home.

This film’s riches go far beyond its central plot and the playful toying with concepts of fate and luck. The canvas on which Jakimowski paints his main concerns is filled with vignettes of life in Stefek’s sandpit, whether that be a trio of old-timers who sit around smoking, drinking and shooting the breeze; river bank swimming trips; Italian classes at the local community centre; street gatherings and gypsy music; or the loneliness of a man just trying to sell some apples. It is these elements that give Tricks such an authentic flavour captured by the wonderful cinematography of Adam Bajerski whose close-up work is as confident as it is striking. Director Jakimowski is able to paint a portrait of not only the village’s inhabitants and their way of life, but also the village itself as Bajerski studies the streets and buildings with a mixture of wide and tracking shots. This might be a slightly dilapidated, working class corner of old Europe, but does he ever bring those bleached tones and rough edges to life filling the screen with a tangible richness.

And yet it is the performances of the three young actors Damian Ul, Ewelina Walendziak and Rafal Guzniczak that stick at the forefront of my mind. Not only are the relationships they share with one another genuine, they are each just so thoroughly likeable that you forget that you are used to contrivances in film to draw conflict between the protagonists. The characters of Stefek, Elka and Jerzy all have the kind of quirks you might expect of a real person, and it is without judgment or prejudice that we observe their behaviour, rather events and circumstances just play out with them inside. Of course this is in part also thanks to Jakimowski’s elegant and playful script that is never afraid to take a back set to the action and settings he creates.

will be missed by most, and what a shame that is. Director Jakimowski reminds us that cinema need not always be cynical in its pursuit of real life, that a touch of magical realism can go a long way, and that no matter how hard or gently we might try to influence fate, free will is ultimately an unpredictable entity.

Tricks is playing as part of Windows On Europe Film Festival in Sydney February 14-22 at Dendy Cinema Opera Quays.


Anonymous said...

Great review, I'm happy that you appreciated this gem.