The elephant in the pool

COME out of your shell, says Arnaud (Jean-Marc Barr), second from left, to Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) and Ana (Agnieszka Zulewska), while his heavily pregnant wife Claire (Alma Jodorowsky) looks on, nonplussed, in a scene from Silent Land on the European Film Festival in South Africa, from 13 October.

BIAS. THE PERCEPTIONS of value with which one is raised is something that can penetrate so deeply and so early in one’s social behaviour that often it surfaces in a way that is inexplicable. Particularly to others. Aga Woszczynska, in her 2022 work, Silent Land, explores a level of racism in her foray into snow white existence that will leave you with goosebumps. You can see it on this year’s European Film Festival; designed to be hybrid, it offers limited screenings and online access in Johannesburg and Cape Town, between 13 and 23 October, Mbabane between 21 and 23 October and Maseru, between 28 and 30 October.

Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) and Ana (Agnieszka Zulewska) are the perfect Aryan couple. Steely white and ice cold in their skin, their eyes and their hairless bodies, they could be made of beaten silver. They represent everything in the stereotype of whiteness that might leave you cold. And the production design echoes this, chillingly. They’re here, on an Italian island, on holiday. To chill.

Money is clearly no object, and the large house with a pool on the edge of the sea is their idyllic chosen place of sanctuary. Only the pool needs work, and there’s a war going on. But that is not enough to keep the woman from complaining. They need the pool, she says. They won’t survive the heat without it, she says.

The characters do not let you in. They’re moody and self-focused to the point of throwing away other lives, not with malice, but insouciance. Taking the notion of cardboard cut-outs to an extreme, it’s a simple tale of values. But it’s long winded in its vast silences and cropped up dialogue.

Convoluted subtlety in the plot department, a beautiful understanding of light from the cinematographer and an Arab with his curly dog lend the story balance and circularity. There is a moment in this work which evokes the last scene in the Netflix-released Israeli series Shtisel, where bread and wine can be shared with those who are absent.

The yarn threaded through Silent Land, if teased too brutally apart or analysed too closely, will yield nothing. As you watch this slowly unfolding work, rendered in broad brush strokes, you will notice the interstices of it, stained horribly with bias. It’s a powerful, carefully developed piece with two distinctly unlikeable characters holding its reins.

Silent Land is directed by Aga Woszczynska and features a cast headed by Jean-Marc Barr, Claudio Bigagli, Dobromir Dymecki, Elvis Esposito, Gennaro Iaccarino, Alma Jodorowsky, Ibrahim Keshk, Cezary Kosinski, Marcello Romolo and Agnieszka Zulewska. Written by Piotr Litwin and Aga Woszczynska, it is produced by Agnieszka Wasiak and features creative input by Bartosz Swiniarski (cinematography), Jaroslaw Kaminski (editing), Sara Casani and Maya Serrulla (casting), Ilaria Sadun (production design) and Anna Sikorska (costumes). In Polish, Italian and French with English subtitles, it is part of the 9thEuropean Film Festival South Africa, screening in Johannesburg, Cape Town and online, 13-23 October 2022; and Mbabane at the Alliance Française, 21-23 October and Maseru at the Alliance Française, 28-30 October.

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