Sunday, January 31, 2010

Storm Warnings: The Beads of One Rosary

In that worker’s paradise that was Communist Poland circa 1979, there was no ownership of private property. However, in recognition of years of loyal service, retired miner and military veteran Karol Habryka had been permitted to retain his family’s cottage. Unfortunately, all promises are rendered null-and-void when plans for a new housing complex require the demolition of Habryka’s home. The only question is how long the spirited old man will hold out in Kazimierz Kutz’s deceptively titled The Beads of One Rosary, which screens during the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Storm Warnings: Resistance and Reflection in Polish Cinema 1977-1989 retrospective, presented in conjunction with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ ongoing Performing Revolution festival.

The Habryka family home might not look like much by the standards of the capitalist West, but the small vegetable patch is not inconsequential for their quality of life. It had also allowed Habryka to enjoy the pride of ownership, even if it was illusionary, through his constant chores and maintenance. One by one, their longtime neighbors are evicted, usually mere hours before the wrecking balls destroys their former homes right before their eyes. He might be a loyal Communist, but Habryka is not about to acquiesce to such plans for his home.

Naturally, the apparatchiks put on a full court press, ranging from social pressure to more outright attempts at intimidation (bricks through the window and the like). Even Habryka’s estranged older son Jerzy is brought in to talk sense to his father, but to no avail. The old man digs in and as long as he stays, his loyal younger son Antek will not budge either, likening themselves to two beads of the same rosary.

As reflected in cinematographer Wieslaw Zdort’s washed out palette, Polish life in the film looks bleak and drab. Everyone and everything in Rosary appears beaten down by decades of Communist cruddiness, including the life-worn Habrykas. Their stubborn patriarch might have a mischievous sense of humor, but he is not some impish character out of Grumpy Old Men. Augustyn Halotta’s performance is much more nuanced than that. He gives viewers a real sense of the steel in Habryka’s spine, without any grandstanding “acting” moments. However, it is the finely calibrated supporting turn by Jan Bógdoł as Antek that really captures the film’s humanist essence.

Rosary is a relatively simple story about what inevitably happens to individuals living under statism. Directed with sensitivity by Kutz, a former protégé of the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda, it captures the mood of mounting disillusionment with the Communist government that gave rise to the solidarity movement. It even has direct relevance for contemporary American audiences increasingly critical of the uses and abuses of public domain (government theft). It screens during the Storm Warnings film series this coming Friday (2/5) and Saturday (2/6) at the Walter Reade Theater.