Everybody knows SIFF. But are you hip to SPFF? The Seattle Polish Film Festival offers new-big-thing directors and stars. Though I'm guessing the biggest draw among the fest's 20 flicks may be the opening-night romantic comedy Angel in Love, the two SPFF titles previewed portend a gloomier mood and position the fest as a weighty purveyor of social-problem cinema.
A grim feature about the scars a brutal father inflicts on a sensitive son, The Welts was produced by Seattle-beloved Polish auteur Krzysztof Zanussi, dubbed "the best director in Europe" by Roger Ebert. First-time director Magdalena Piekorz's emotional melodrama is so overstated it strains credulity, except that it's based on the quasi-autobiographical books of Wojciech Kuczok, whose dad evidently tried hard to beat sense into his head; instead, he hurt him into a literary career.
For the first half of the film, we see the Kuczok character get whomped and alienated. Later, the grown protagonist takes out his frustrations by beating up the editor who cancels his articles. He's also a cave diver, a psychologically resonant metaphor in a society full of leaky sewers and coal mines and smelly memories of the patriarchal police state. As Kuczok tells it, the church was no savior from Communism, just the state's oppressive henchman. Only a walking symbol of a pretty woman can air out the leaky nastiness of Kuczok's soul.
The Welts is simplistic, but it boasts a certain brooding propulsive quality, and strong images: After his final filial contact, the hero crucifies his hands on the windowsill spikes he installed to discourage pigeons.
The Oscar-Nominated The Children of Leningradsky makes the 1984 Seattle homeless-kid documentary Streetwise look like a day at the Fun Forest. The filmmakers say that 1 million to 4 million kids became homeless after the fall of the Soviet Union, and 30,000 were camped in Leningrad's streets and subways when they went there to film them. It's unbearable to see the kids huff glue, beg, beat up bums and each other, but their nightmare underworld exerts a hypnotic effect.
SPFF pictures aren't all despair-athons—the comedy Let's Make a Grandson sounds positively life-affirming. But Poland ain't Tinseltown. Upbeat escapism will be balanced with spiritual spelunking to some dark places.
Seattle Polish Film Festival: Sat., April 23–Sun., April 24; and Fri., April 29–Sun., May 1, at Seattle Art Museum, 100 University St. For tickets ($8–$10, passes available) and information: www.polishfilms.org or 206-654-3121.