Like any filmmaking nation, Poland is known for its auteurs — Wajda and Polanski, Holland and Kieslowski. But two of the more notable selections at this year’s Polish Film Festival pivot on superb performances, rather than especially confident or distinctive filmmaking. In Feliks Falk’s uneven drama The Collector (2005), Andrzej Chyra captures the look and tone of glib professionalism as Lucek Bohme, a repo man who takes neither pleasure nor prisoners in his work. The film’s opening movements are admirably bleak, following Lucek on his rounds as he calmly divests people of their possessions. Having established its protagonist as a rule-abiding stooge, the film then sets out to redeem him: Lucek suffers a breakdown and decides to right the wrongs he’s done as a good company man. Chyra negotiates Lucek’s transformation into a righteous proletariat avenger with finesse, evincing the desperation of a man whose moral universe has toppled, but once you glean the underlying message — that no spiritual re-awakening goes unpunished — there’s not much else to consider. My Nikifor (2004), by longtime TV director Krzysztof Krauze, is less showy, if equally obvious in its themes. This account of the final years of the famed Polish naive painter Nikifor Krynicki — a tubercular illiterate who nevertheless produced nearly 40,000 paintings over his career — explores the possibility of transcendence through art. It’s hardly an original angle, but the film succeeds, thanks largely to the astonishing efforts of 86-year-old actress Krystyna Feldman as the eponymous artist-savant. Her gender-bending performance (abetted by uncommonly convincing makeup) eschews cuteness or sentimentality: this Nikifor is no lovable sage. He’s stooped, sullen and basically impenetrable. (On the rare occasions when he speaks, it’s to mutter complaints and criticisms.) Then slowly, through his unsolicited tutelage of a state-sponsored hack painter (Roman Gancarczyk), we come to see him as an almost holy figure, an avatar of art for its own blessed sake. Krauze wisely resists showing us too much of his subject’s work until the final sequence, a possible homage to Andrei Rublev that features a parade of Nikifor’s paintings.
(Sunset 5; through May 4. www.polishfilmla.org)