Venice Dispatch: Matuszyński’s “Leave No Traces,” Diwan’s “Happening,” Plá and Santullo’s “The Other Tom”

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On the eve of the awards ceremony, three cries for justice—from Poland, France, and the US—crackle with anger and life-affirming energy.

Venice, day nine. There’s something almost ineffably melancholic about watching a festival empty out. As I type these words, twenty-four hours or so before the awards will be announced, the press room I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time in, is now home to a smattering of survivors. The end is nigh, people are flocking home, and the jury led by Bong Joon-ho is busy picking this year’s winners somewhere on the island. It’s been a strange, uneven ride, with a lineup so front-loaded it was perhaps only natural that the fest’s second week wouldn’t live up to the sheen of the first few days. But the last stretch was still home to some belated surprises, among them, Jan P. Matuszyński’s Leave No Traces. A follow-up to his 2016 Locarno prizewinning The Last Family, Matuszyński’s second feature is based on an ignominious piece of Polish history. In May 1983, 19-year-old Grzegorz Przemyk was beaten to death by the Polish Civic Militia. His crime? Refusing to show his ID to a cop (an order he did not even have to obey, as the martial law had already been lifted). Grzegorz was arrested and taken into custody with friend and fellow student, Jurek (Tomasz Ziętek)—a fictional version of the real witness in the case. And it’s on Jurek’s shoulders that the film rests; Leave No Traces isn’t so much interested in trying to understand what exactly happened, or to find out those responsible for the tragedy, but to outline how the system sought to silence the backlash that followed, and discredit the young man’s version.

In that way, it’s a success. Based on Cezary Łazarewicz’s novel of the same name, and adapted for the screen by Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk, Leave No Traces yields an autopsy of the state apparatus as it struggles with what a minister calls, in a wondrous understatement, “a slight public image problem.” Helmed by de facto dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish regime had already begun confronting new threats from civil society, chief among them the Solidarność trade union, which rallied thousands to Grzegorz’s funeral in the early 1980s. No background knowledge of these players is needed to savor Leave No Traces; the film never morphs into a history lesson. At its best, it thrums with an incendiary fury that brought me back to Costa-Gavras’s Z, another cry of rage and a fulminating investigation into a country’s shady past. Sure, the wounds Costa-Gavras was poking at were still unbearably vivid when Z came out (only six years had passed since its release and the high-profile murder it hones in on). Leave No Traces doesn’t enjoy the same temporal proximity or pulse-pounding rhythm, but it still bursts with the fury of an unavenged crime; Grzegorz’s killers were never brought to justice, a conclusion that feels inevitable long before Jurek finally makes it to court. 

There’s no denying the gargantuan size and scope, or the some of the difficulties Matuszyński shows in keeping up the momentum. Clocking at two hours and forty minutes, Leave No Traces is a sprawling, meandering epic, a tale of countless subplots and subterfuges. Jurek may well be the centerpiece, but the film belongs to a handful of other characters—chief among them his father (Jacek Braciak) and Grzegorz’s mother Barbara (Sandra Korzeniak), whom Matuszyński posits as opposite gravitational forces in the moral battleground Jurek has to cross. But if the end result can sometimes feel disorienting, the film doesn’t get lost in its own material. Like Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, Matuszyński keeps a point of view above the events, and there’s something admirable in his implacable commitment to leave no stones unturned, as Leave No Traces dogs a whole platoon of people who made sure the truth behind Grzegorz’s death never saw the light of day. In a story that favors conversations over actions, Kacper Fertacz’s handheld long takes grace the proceedings with a febrile excitement, while the 16mm palette, coupled with Paweł Jarzębski’s fastidious production design, don credibility and vividness to the early 1980s Polish locale. Anchored as it may be to a temporally and geographically specific tragedy, the fervor Leave No Traces brims with is universal, its plea for justice ever topical. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking of George Floyd as the end credits rolled.

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Leonardo Goi
An Italian-born, UK-raised film critic, Leonardo Goi is an alumnus of the Locarno Critics Academy and Berlinale Talents, where he coordinates the Talent Press