Some of my favorite films portray characters that step to a different tune. Kurosawa’s Ikiru offers Takashi Shimura’s Watanabe, who takes it upon himself to cut through bureaucratic red tape and get a playground built in a poor neighborhood. In The Third Man, Welles’ Harry Lime pursues his capitalist ideals with less than pure motives. The titular character in Lawrence of Arabia walks across a desert sans guide to follow his complicated desires. It’s no wonder then that I enjoy Jerzy Stuhr’s gorgeously photographed Big Animal, which in its own way, presents a similar scenario.
The film features the always interesting Stuhr in the lead role as Mr. Sawicki, a middle-aged village banker who discovers a camel in his front yard. While he takes to the animal quickly, his wife remains cautious, and the other townspeople offer a variety of responses ranging from full acceptance to outright dismissal. Slowly, Sawicki begins to see the consequences of his individuality, and must navigate his way through the competing desires of the townspeople.
Lest this sound like dreary Polish melodrama, it most certainly is not. The film bubbles over with life, quirkiness, and outright laughter. Yet this light-hearted manner never dominates the film, as comedy and drama intertwine to provide opportunities for complex sets of responses at any particular moment. In one scene, after Sawicki knows many in the town are against his owning a camel, he arrives home from walking the camel, only to meet an “angry” mob of his neighbors. It’s raining so he hurries into his new stable, while the (remember, angry) mob stands silently in the street. Stuhr plays the scene out beautifully, creating a moment where laughing or heartbreak would make for an appropriate response (FWIW, I laughed. A lot.).
This mix of emotional responses parallels another paradoxical element: that of the individual versus the community. Sawicki comes across near the beginning of the film as a man in tune with the world around him. He plays clarinet in the orchestra. He never arrives late for work. He shares predictably quiet dinners with his wife. Yet when the camel comes on the scene, everything changes. He takes his camel for walks through the town. He decides to build an Arabian style stable in his yard. And most of all, the townspeople begin to raise eyebrows at his “strange” behavior, leaving him feeling like an outsider in his own village. What’s a man to do?
Stuhr films Kieslowski’s script in black and white, and while the circumstances of the characters are anything but, this choice evokes a bygone era, much like George Clooney’s recent directorial effort, Good Night and Good Luck. By pointing us to the past, the film’s political allegory is apparent, though due to deft writing and direction, in addition to the engaging lead performances, the allegory never overwhelms the touching personal story that drives the film. This central narrative arc of a mature couple trying to navigate between conformity and being themselves presents a dilemma many of us can relate to in this day and age.