A genuinely moving tale about a young boy’s attempts to magically influence an adult world he barely understands.
Sztuczki is a hard movie to categorize; an immediate point in its favor. Part gritty expose, part magical realism, part thriller. Sounds awful, but it isn’t. Director Andrzej Jakimowski has won all kinds of awards for this offbeat offering and they’re richly deserved.
We meet six-year-old Stefek (Damian Ul) and his big sister Elka (Ewelina Walendziak) waiting for a train in the one-horse, down at heel Polish town they call home. At first I had a horrible feeling I knew exactly what was coming. Stefek is unremittingly quirky and innocent in a way that real six-year-olds never are and Elka is worldy-wise beyond her years in a way that 18-year-old never are either. Fortunately this doesn’t turn out to matter much. Miraculously an engaging story emerges.
Stefek and Elka, please supply your own melon jokes
It goes like this; at some indeterminate point in the past the too perfect kid and his big sister lost their papa when he ran off with a hussy from the big city. So far so reassuringly commonplace. Stefek is keen to have a dad again, Elka isn’t so sure. Stefek scans the commuters on the platform looking for a man he can’t remember aided by a hopelessly defaced photograph. Elka spots a man she’s fairly sure is her long-lost papa but says nothing.
“Hey buddy, aren’t you my father?”
And right there we get to the meat of the movie. Stefek believes that fate can be manipulated by doing things, Elka believes that all one can really do is sit and see what happens. Scene after scene underlines this basic disagreement. In the park Stefek tries to impress his sister by scrunching up a burger wrapper and tossing it expertly into the trash. Elka places her wrapped-up burger on the floor and watches as it is passed from the owner of a hungry dog, to a street bum, and finally into the trash without her lifting a finger. Stefek tries to influence the fortunes of an apple seller by purchasing some of his wares, Elka has a better way. These are the ‘tricks’ of the title. Stefek is fascinated by his sister’s apparently magical powers and sets out to develop some of his own. Flat caps, cigarettes, lead soldiers, and 200-ton freight trains are involved.
Elka’s boyfriend transporting cabbage
Stefek has a scheme. He co-opts Elka’s slightly gormless boyfriend (Rafal Guzniczak), a flock of pigeons, and a two-inch high model of Napoleon and sets out to change his fate. Elka has an interview with a slightly dodgy Italian businessman who’s interested in something more than her translation skills and she’s damned if she’s going to lift a finger to reunite the family.
And then, right at the end, it turns out that neither point of view matters because papa is a human being with his own will and not just a random force of nature.
Final verdict: The best Polish film I’ve seen since I started reviewing Polish films, which wasn’t terribly long ago.