The specter of World War II and its effects on the Polish psyche hang heavily over this year's Polish Film Festival, with several films set either just before or during the war. The questions raised by the likes of Jan Jakub Kolski's Venice and Feliks Falk's Joanna, about honor, betrayal, human decency and compassion, are universal but also serve to draw a direct line between entries that explore the horrors inflicted by the Nazis, and those that look at atrocities committed by entities ranging from modern-day crime lords to recent communist leaders. The films offered for preview are largely somber and reflective; they're also pretty riveting, and all are wonderfully acted.
Highlights include Joanna, about a non-Jewish woman who hides a Jewish girl from the Nazis and goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her when their secret is discovered. Almost from the first frame, the film is a nail-biter, and Urszula Grabowska (Joanna) justifiably won several major acting awards. Fast-forward through time to Jan Kidawa-Blonski's Little Rose, in which a naive college secretary (the gorgeous Magdalena Boczarska) is recruited by her secret-agent boyfriend to spy on a college professor suspected of being a Zionist. When put in conversation with Joanna, Little Rose sparks a dialogue on women's bodies and how they're used (and imagined) in times of conflict. Between the two films, a kind of Madonna/whore dynamic emerges in which the practice of self-sacrifice links the two femme archetypes.
Also recommended: Marcin Wrona's The Christening, in which a thick-headed soldier returns home to find that his best friend, and former cohort in the local mafia, has married, fathered a child and turned informant. Their reunion is made tense by the revelation of snitching but also by the duo's attempts to circumvent the death sentence meted out to the “turncoat.” Rafael Lewandowski's engrossing character study The Mole shines a light on the role of the secret police in assassinating civilians during communist rule, while Marek Lechki's Erratum sidesteps commentary on institutional or political systems, setting its masculine angst in a lower key: A harrowing car accident forces a middle-aged prodigal son to examine his relationship to his estranged father. The symbolism (from a homeless man whose life is meant as a metaphor for the lead character's, to a stray dog that crops up repeatedly) is a bit heavy-handed, but the cast wrings genuine emotion from the setup. —Ernest Hardy
12TH ANNUAL POLISH FILM FESTIVAL | Oct. 11-20 | Egyptian Theatre, Sunset 5 and other venues | polishfilmla.org