Spoor [2017] – Murder, Mistreatment and Marginalization in a Gorgeous Small Town

Spoor

Renowned Polish film-maker Agnieszka Holland started her career by working as an assistant to Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda.  Faith-based conflicts is one of the essential themes in Holland’s films and she had collaborated on screenplay with Krzysztof Kieslowski (in Three Colors: Blue) who was another great Polish film-maker to adeptly examine the issues of faith. Starting from 1978 political allegory Provincial Actors, Holland has made numerous acclaimed movies in Poland, Germany and America (Bitter Harvest, Europa Europa, Olivier Olivier, The Secret Garden, Washington Square were my favorite movies of the director). In 2011, her harrowing Holocaust tale ‘In Darkness’ received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. In the recent years, she has directed few episodes in high profile TV series, including The Wire, House of Cards, and The Killing. With the latest film Spoor (‘Pokot’, 2017), Agnieszka Holland has embarked to make her first murder/mystery genre feature (screened at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and became Poland’s entry in the race for the best foreign-language film Oscar). The movie has also accidentally become an allegory for the Polish right-wing government’s vile authoritarian stance on women’s rights and environmental science.

Based on Olga Tokarczuk’s novel ‘Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead’, Spoor’s central mysterious core is surrounded by fairy-tale like setting and characters. While Holland says that she has ‘inadvertently ended up chronicling the wider reality of Polish women’ (in Guardian interview), the ambience of the narrative deliberately boasts the tone of progressive fairy-tales. Co-directed by Holland’s daughter Kasia Adamik and co-written by Olga Tokarczuk herself, Spoor reminds us of Angela Carter’s reinterpretation of the tale of Red Riding Hood (in the book ‘The Bloody Chamber’). The big difference might be that the narrative unfurls from grandmother-like character’s perspective rather than virginal young woman. Spoor opens with images of a gorgeous mountainous village which evokes the fairy-tale tagline of ‘Once upon a time……’ We see Ms. Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka), an old lady enjoying her solitary existence at the edge of the woods with her two lovely dogs. But we soon learn of hellish human behavior in the beautiful wilderness.

Ms. Duszejko is a former civil engineer. She treats the dogs as her daughters and loves the lush open space. She is a part-time English teacher at the town’s elementary school (adored by the pupils) and astrology is her latest obsession. The Polish town is situated near the Czech border which is known for its predominant hunting culture. A hunting calendar hangs in local government offices and social dynamics between town’s men is defined by cruel ritual of hunting. Poachers do the worst to peaceful animals and easily get away from existing laws. Everyone from the town’s mayor to the priest travel in large bands (recruiting younger generation) to shoot the shrieking roe deer. As an animal lover, Duszejko can’t bear the wider tolerance of animal cruelty in the male authoritarian community. She has filed numerous complaints with local police about out of season hunting and a cruel neighbor, who cages animals in little boxes. But she’s only shooed off with looks alternating between pity and irritation. The narrative mechanics starts grinding with the sudden disappearance of Duszejko’s beloved dogs. She suspects that the hunters are truly behind it. Two months go by without any sign of her dog.

One cold night, Duszejko’s lonely and warm elderly neighbor Matoga (Wiktor Zborowski) wakes her up to tell that their neighbor and known poacher is dead. Evidence points out that he was murdered. Apart from Matoga, there are few people in town whom Ms. Duszejko could call as friends. One is kind, beautiful young woman nicknamed Good News (Patricia Volny) and other is epileptic IT specialist (in police department) named Dyzio (Jakub Gierszał). All the three of Ms. Duszejko’s friends are outsiders and hence marginalized in the small community. A subplot involves love triangle between Good News, seedy Jarek Wnetrzak (Borys Szyc) and the inept IT specialist. Duszejko would pretty much like it if Good News gets out of toxic relationship with Wnetrzak and got acquainted with Dyzio. Soon, Ms. Duszejko stumbles across two more dead bodies, including that of police chief. She finds deer tracks around the murdered corpse so as to formulate a dubious theory that the animals are taking revenge against the known hunters. While the bodies keeps piling up, the narrative takes an off-kilter, meandering path, focusing as much on the characters as the central mystery.

Although Spoor belongs to mystery genre, the material defies such easy categorization. The free-wheeling, genre-bending exercise often pushes plot developments to the background, substituted by its focus on outcast characters and their struggle against authoritarian society. There are enough clues to solve the mystery long before it is disclosed. Yet, the film remains engrossing due to its social commentary and construction of unique atmospherics. The events in the narrative are set across a whole year. Directors Adamik and Holland gracefully takes us through the changing seasons, cooking-up acute color palettes. The seasons also directly reflect the general change in the narrative mood. From the autumn mist spelling out danger and beauty to cold winter of gruesome murders to the warm summer full of romance, the seasons remain as stand-in for character as well as narrative transitions. Director Holland’s recurring digressions to examine human relationship with the natural world doesn’t add much details to the core mystery, yet it adds a nice feel or texture to the overall proceedings. It also means that those expecting a twisty, full-fledged mystery/thriller would be sorely disappointed.

From a political perspective, the bond of hunting amidst hard-lined men with archaic views could be equated with attitude of contemporary politicians bearing their dictatorial agenda. In the similar vein, Holland’s angry and helpless protagonist Duszejko represents the elderly female population who’d like preserve or defend freedom for their daughters & grand-daughters. Agnieszka Holland cites that the recent large-scale demonstrations in Poland (to protest against government’s all-out abortion ban) were taken up by older women who didn’t want the regressive political past to re-surface. Despite the accidental allegorical quotient, Agnieszka Mandat’s passionate performance in the role of Ms. Duszejko is essential for its success. Mandat-Grabka’s character often loses her self-control, reasoning and at times remains highly eccentric. However, she makes the viewers empathize with her and believe that Duszejko is utterly harmless woman till the end (she also ably plays the moments of absurd humor). The secondary performers don’t have multilateral characteristics, but it seems deliberate to wholly concentrate on crazily sensitive old lady whose presence is otherwise downplayed in similar mystery narrative.

While director Agnieszka Holland’s unique perceptive offering adds layers of social commentary and urgency to the tale, Spoor isn’t devoid of flaws. One of the primary problemes is the design of black-and-white world where male population is either categorized as schematic villains or traumatized, compassionate lovers. Not just the male characters, the female characters too are neatly dichotomized under ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ category. Perhaps, the approach may easily pass through the inherent allegorical notions, but this only feigns narrative depth. The visual sketch of these ‘bad’ males isn’t very inventive (and all the alleged evil men keep on mispronouncing Duszejko as ‘Duschenko’). Holland goes for close-up of the repulsive men’s mouths to indicate their over-all devouring stance. The other annoying visual flourishes include brief flashes of secondary characters’ past life which may only work in emotionally manipulative TV shows. The ending makes up the film’s biggest flaw. It delivers a ready-made happy ending, where misfits set out to make a paradise. It’s the kind of cloying, unequivocal closure that only belongs to Hollywood melodramas. If Agnieszka Holland has purged some of these one-dimensional constructions, the film’s rebellious tone would have been much more deeply reflective.

Spoor (128 minutes) is a fairly entertaining mystery-drama which ponders on the ecological and societal imbalance caused by toxic masculinity. Despite some serious narrative missteps, the film holds our attention, thanks to Agnieszka Mandat’s warm performance and the stunning natural atmosphere.

 

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