Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Panorama Europe’15: Gods

During the Communist era, Poland was officially an atheist state. Yet, Dr. Zbigniew Religa’s crusade to successfully perform the country’s first heart transplant surgery was often denigrated as a desire to play god. The establishment would use any rhetorical club to beat down innovation. Fortunately, Dr. Religa was not the sort to hew to the Party line. Medicine will struggle to overcome politics in Lukasz Palkowski’s Gods (trailer here), which screens on the opening weekend of this year’s Panorama Europe, at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Religa was not the first Polish doctor to attempt a heart transplant. That was Prof. Jan Moll, who was crucified by the medical authorities when the patient rejected the donor heart. Although no longer pushing the frontiers of medicine, Moll will serve as an informal advisor to Religa when he picks up his transplant standard. Unfortunately, it will not happen in Warsaw. All the directors of big urban clinics avoid controversy like the plague. To develop the life-saving procedure, Dr. Religa will assume the directorship of a new clinic in the provincial town of Zabrze. The clinic is fine (it should be, considering Dr. Religa and his staff largely built it themselves from the ground up), but the time away from his wife will wreck Religa’s marriage.

Despite Religa’s eventual breakthroughs, Gods is anything but a ringing endorsement of the old, oppressive system and its socialized medicine. Just funding the clinic was quite a trick. Although Religa is reluctant to ask for Party money, he has little options. Happily, he connects with a regional boss, who is corrupt in a good way. Dr. Religa also has no problem hiring junior surgeons who have been blackballed for their past support of Solidarity.

Clearly, Dr. Religa was quite a physician, but as played by the 6’ 6” Tomasz Kot, he hardly looks like George Clooney in ER. A tall, gaunt, stoop-shouldered chain-smoker, his Religa is far from a picture of health. Frankly, it is easy to see why he was so driven to perfect heart transplant surgery. Nevertheless, he projects a commanding presence that would instill confidence.

Without question, Gods is Kot’s show, but he gets some key consults from veteran Polish actors Jan Englert as Prof. Sitkowski, Religa’s skeptical former mentor, and Wladyslaw Kowalski as the wise and compassionate Prof. Moll. Much like the trailblazing surgeon, inter-personal relations are not exactly the strength of Krzysztof Rak’s screenplay, which means Magdalena Czerwinska is stuck holding a rather one-dimensional stick as Religa's neglected wife, Anna.

Still, Gods has an appealingly dry wit. It is also a first rate period production, reproducing the general drabness of the late Communist era, as well as the defiant manifestations of grooviness that periodically popped-up through the cracks. In fact, it might well be difficult for a potential American distributor to license several of the period-signifying pop songs for theatrical release, so viewers intrigued by Gods should make a point of seeing it on the festival circuit. Recommended for fans of Polish cinema and medical dramas, Gods screens Friday (5/29) at MoMI in Astoria Queens, as part the 2015 Panorama Europe.