If 2006 had been a less stellar year for foreign films, Polish director Slawomir Fabricki’s striking debut might have had a shot at a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination. But the competition was Canada’s Water, Spain’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Algeria’s Days of Glory, Denmark’s After the Wedding and, the eventual Oscar winner, Germany’s The Lives of Others. So the odds became untenably long. Plus, those five movies are better than Retrieval. But when Fabricki lays his innate sensitivity atop the grim and violent story of a young boxer in the employ of a local gangster, the result is an Eastern European amalgam of Ken Loach’s working class characterizations and the Dardenne Brothers’ neo-realistic visual stylings. Since Loach and the Dardennes are hardly synonymous with the phrase “box office windfall”, it’s hard to imagine Retrieval making all that much money. But foreign film buffs should find reasonable enjoyment.
Retrieval is a patchwork of similar movies about working class innocents taken under a criminal wing. Still, screenwriters Fabricki, Denijal Hasanovic and Marek Pruchniewski make it their own and Fabricki’s languid style matches his quiet, conflicted teenage hero, Wojtek (Antoni Pawlicki). In a crumbling, dead-end Polish town, Wojtek quits his cement factory job after a horrific accident reminiscent of the opening moments of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Wojtek is even pulled, coughing and breathless, from the narrow-mouthed shaft, like a newborn emerging from the birth canal. Now unemployed, Wojtek needs to provide for himself and his illegal Ukrainian girlfriend Katja (Nataliya Vdovina), who has a son from a previous marriage. If the sweet, playful and lost Wojtek has any talent it’s boxing and he fights in amateur matches under the sobriquet Cement Man. During a match, he catches the eye of local businessman Gazda (Jacek Braciak, quietly menacing) who offers a job as a nightclub bouncer.
One can sense where this might be headed, and Fabricki uses long, drifty takes and handheld cameras to convey how sometimes a person’s life becomes a long, slow, invisible descent until, one day, they look behind and realize they’ve hit bottom. For Wojtek, he works under the corrupting tutelage of Gazda’s tough-guy underling Kalafior (Wojciech Zielinski), who tries to teach him how to use a gun. But Wojtek, training along with beefy friend Baton (Michal Filipiak), can’t bring himself to shoot three helpless dogs. Indeed, he barely has enough guts to playfully shoot Gazda with a plastic gun while he’s wrestling with his children. Nevertheless, Gazda’s interest in Wojtek evolves beyond nightclubs and he convinces him to be the new muscle in his loan sharking outfit. Although Katja is never 100% in the loop as Wojtek climbs the ranks (cleverly, Fibricki never implies that the highest ranks in this dying Polish town are very impressive), she’s still the voice of concern who’s offended by Gazda’s ability to secure her citizenship papers and a big, new apartment. But the promise of something better for Katja and her son are enough for Wojtek to beat up late-payers, even if the brooding young man never seems quite comfortable with his new lot.
Digging your way out of a hole is always harder than digging your way into it. That’s especially true for Wojtek, who is too enticed by monetary necessity and love for Katja to fully realize what he’s gotten into. Fabricki always dramatizes Wojtek’s plight from the inside out, never getting caught up in the violent allure of gangsterism or succumbing to melodrama. The movie has an altogether haunting feel, capped by a final shot that’s a brilliant callback to an earlier line of dialogue. If you want to get home bad enough, you can always find a way. Even if it kills you.
Cast: Antoni Pawlicki, Nataliya Vdovina, Jacek Braciak, Dmytro Melnychuk, Michal Filipiak, Wojciech Zielinski.
Director: Slawomir Fabricki
Screenwriters: Slawomir Fabricki, Denijal Hasanovic, Marek Pruchniewski
Producers: Piotr Dzieciol, Lukasz Dzieciol
Rating: Not Rated
Running time: 107 min.
Release date: August 11