After several years working on different television series, Agnieszka Holland returned to filmmaking with modern day rural thriller set on Polish-Czech border with ecological and political undertones Spoor which premiered in this year’s Berlinale competition and won Alfred Bauer Prize. This is her first film since Oscar-nominated In Darkness (2011). It is to early to speak about awards ambitions, but, in Polish and Central-Eastern European context of “non-liberal democracy”, Spoor will be talked about in months to follow.
The film is based on Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009), adapted for the screen by novelist and the director themselves. The plot is centered around Mrs. Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka in a great turn), a retired civil engineer who moved to a small village in mountain region, took a part-time job teaching English in local elementary school and developed interest in astrology and eco-activism. The latter can be especially tricky in the region with strong hunting traditions, where literally everyone is connected through hunting societies and where the grade school age children are thought hunting anthems.
First her dogs disappear, which can be a natural hazard of life in the wilderness, or more likely provocation of sorts. Shortly after that, dead bodies of hunters start popping up, from a low-life poacher to local magnate, police chief and even mayor and all of them had their disagreements with the “crazy” old lady. Mrs. Duszejko has a theory that, since all the crime scenes are covered in different animal tracks, it is some sort of natural cycle and payback for all the hunting and poaching. Or maybe we have the case of a good ol’ fashioned serial killer here...
Luckily, she is not all alone there. Her neighbour Matoga (Wiktor Zborowski) makes some moves towards her, but more than that, they enjoy the company of one another. Mrs. Duszejko’s kindness towards a troubled young woman called “Good News” (Patrycja Volny) will result in friendship with her and another outsider, an epileptic computer technician Dyzio (Jakub Grieszal) working for the police. And her “party” is rounded with a travelling Czech university professor interested in insects named Boros (Miroslav Krobot).
The sense of community, no matter how marginal and alternative it is can be crucial for mental sanity in the conservative, patriarchal, even primitive and primal environment. It is not just about ecology and making the case against hunting (even though the film’s internal calendar is informing the viewers about the hunting seasons). It is about Polish society in general: the strong influence of the Catholic Church and interwined conservative structures that are posing for absolute majority even if they are not. The anti-eco argument was pulled out for the last parliamentary elections, the old left-leaning government was accused of taking care only after “eco-fanatics, bicycle-riders and vegans in big cities”, and not giving a damn about “regular”, conservative, god-fearing “majority” of Polish people. That kind of narrative worked: Polish society is divided in two sides pitted against one another, with virtually no dialog in between them and little hope that the things will change in near future. Having that in mind, Spoor is a film that perfectly nails the current moment of time, no matter the fact that the source novel was written years ago, when the overall situation was not that bleak.
I would like to say that Spoor is as good piece of cinema as it is an important, uncompromising social statement. Unfortunately, it is not true, it is good, but not that good. The production values are decent, on the course of similarly themed Nordic thrillers. The TV-roots of such films are evident on every step on the way, and Holland’s recent work leaves its mark. She tries and somewhat succeeds to tweak it up with some marvelous shots of nature changing with the seasons and humorous intervention with the hunting calendar. The actors’ performances are also commendable, with the stage and film veteran Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka leading the way with the “juiciest” role of the film’s heroine and others following her cue and taking their moments to shine.
The main problem with Spoor is not the fact that it relies to heavily on context, but its logic and mechanics taken from literature that works so well on paper does not cut the deal for the film. Right from the start, it is obvious that Spoor is a direct screen adaptation just by its rhythm. The feeling is cemented with the ending which is perfect for a crime novel, but is over-explanatory and too verbal for the art and craft of filmmaking. That should not come as a surprise since the writer was involved in adaptation of her own work, and the good thing is that Spoor works for the most of the time, but it still could and should be a better piece of cinema.