Komunia: Written and directed by Anna Zamecka. Starring: Ola Kaczanowski and Nikodem Kaczanowski. Running Time: 72 minutes.
Komunia is a sparse and bitingly intimate portrait of the hard life of a poor Polish family. The parents are separated for reasons we never learn, and the father’s alcoholism makes him effectively incapable of doing anything other than watching TV, leaving the teenage daughter, Ola, more or less alone in trying to take care of herself and her mentally disabled brother, Nikodem, who for most of the film is struggling to prepare for his first communion.
It is Ola who has to do all the cleaning and cooking. It is Ola who has to coordinate every call and meet-up with their mother, who lets in the social worker to speak with her Dad and admonish him for not giving up drinking. It is Ola who forces her brother to study for the religious exam he has to pass in order to be able to take communion, a task that she devotes herself to with a single-minded fervor, as though getting her brother through this particular rite of adulthood will make everything else worth it. And still, between all this, she still needs time to just be a teenage girl, to dance and party with her friends in the one good dress she owns. And sometimes, she can’t do anything anymore, except break down in tears of frustration and worry.
The movie is short, hard, and doesn’t try to comment on anything we see. It’s as grounded and efficient as documentary filmmaking gets, which is what makes it great. There is no effort to artificially create an “end point” for the family. We see them live, the brother struggles through communion, the parents try getting back together and break right back up again, and by the end Ola and Nikodem are still sitting on the floor of their tiny apartment, sifting through their books.
And it must be emphasized how small the space they have to live in is. The close-up nature of the camerawork- nearly every shot focuses almost exclusively on either Ola or Nikodem to the exclusion of everyone else- makes every place they are in feel tight, narrow, constricted, mirroring the circumstances of life they find themselves in. And yet, they (meaning the children, not the adults) still find love and joy and grace even in the midst of their struggles.
Being a movie about a family preparing for a communion service, and a Polish one at that, Catholicism looms large over the film. The many technical questions about the minutiae of the Catechism are treated as matters of spiritual life or death, and some of the film’s funniest or most poignant moments come when Ola or a teacher or a priest are trying, very seriously of course, to instill this or that tidbit of trivia into Nikodem’s brain, but his rapid-fire thinking and pure honesty won’t let him be tied down by whether or not the priest approves of what he says.
Komunia is a bracing experience, and at times hard to watch, but for such simple subject matter, this is as potent as a documentary can get. Maybe I only related to it as much as I did because I myself am a part-Polish Catholic social worker with a mentally disabled brother, but then again, maybe that’s all that counts.