The history of great dog-reaction shots spans from The Thin Man to I Am Legend; Dorota Kedzierzawska’s Time to Die, which screens as part of the ninth annual Los Angeles Polish Film Festival, resets the bar for canine thesping. I’m not being sarcastic. The film is essentially a two-hander between an old woman (91-year-old Danuta Szaflarska) and her Border collie (who goes by the name Philadelphia), and it works as well as it does due to the interspecies rapport of its performers. Szaflarska’s Mrs. Aniela occupies a crumbling house in Warsaw; having outlived her country’s Communist regime, she finds herself alone at last. Quietly boozing away the afternoons with binoculars in hand (for some Rear Window–style peeping), Mrs. Aniela is in her glory — and so is Philadelphia, who gets to lap up liquor in exchange for listening to her owner’s ruminations on life. But this splendid isolation is short-lived. Plot intrudes and thickens in the form of an adult son (Krzysztof Globisz) who has poorly hidden designs on the property. As a narrative, Time to Die is slight, but as portraiture, it’s exquisite: Szaflarska is a remarkable camera subject and Artur Reinhart’s black-and-white cinematography does her justice while also providing complex perspectives on the ramshackle surroundings.
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Time to Die is paced in time with its nonagenarian protagonist; those looking for something more conventionally eventful might prefer Hope, an oblique drama written by frequent Krzysztof Kieslowski collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz. The film (directed by avant documentarian Stanislaw Mucha) sets up as a battle of wills between a well-respected art dealer (Wojciech Pszoniak) and the cherubic young man (Rafal Fudalej) who has videotaped him stealing a valuable panel from a local church. The latter’s reasonable demand — return the painting — is met with an act of thuggery that seems to push the story toward thriller territory. But Piesiewicz’s concerns are typically metaphysical — a recurring motif about flight dovetails nicely with the hero’s gravity-defying idealism.
High hopes also figure into Michal Kwiecinski’s Tomorrow We’re Going to the Movies, but this bathetic period piece, about three Class of ’38 grads whistling in the dark (and bedding babes) before the German invasion of Poland, is brought low by soap-opera characterizations and some bludgeoning symbolism. The concluding frieze of death-parted lovers beneath an isn’t-it-ironic movie-theater marquee embarrasses filmmaker and audience alike. Kwiecinski has another feature at this year’s festival, and it’s only marginally better: the slickly made comedy Extras, which concerns a Chinese film crew shooting a romantic epic in Poland, looks to prod perceptions of Poles as inveterate depressives; unfortunately, it neglects to imbue its Asian characters with anything approaching nuance. (Sunset 5; Wed.-Sat., Apr. 24-May 4. www.polishfilmla.org)