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Polish Film Fest tracks the rise of a new wave in cinema

Charles Ealy

The struggle in the 1980s to break free of Soviet political repression still resonates with Polish filmmakers, and such themes permeate some of the top movies at the 5th Annual Austin Polish Film Festival, which kicks off today.

The festival, which lasts for two weekends, has its opening gala tonight and features the celebrated film "Reverse," directed by Borys Lankosz.

The 2009 movie is probably the most important to come out of the Eastern European nation in a decade and has been hailed as the beginning of a Polish New Wave in cinema.

Agata Buzek stars as Sabina, a seemingly mild-mannered poetry expert in the cultural affairs division in post-World War II Poland, where secret police routinely haul people away at all hours of the day and night.

Sabina lives with her mother and grandmother, both of whom are desperately trying to find her a husband. And in the process, they repeatedly set her up with people who are ill-suited — and too drunk — to be a spouse.

But Sabina thinks she has found her mate one night when the handsome Bronislaw Falski (Marcin Dorocinski) comes to her rescue during a mugging.

He brings her flowers. He takes her to the movies. He pays respectful attention to her relatives. And he has a dark, brooding side that's both sexy and dangerous.

But Sabina doesn't know exactly what he does. He says that he's still trying to find his way in the world. But when he proposes, Sabina finds out about his true nature, and her world is turned upside down.

"Reverse" moves from domestic comedy to thriller, and the Stalinist threat becomes more and more oppressive.

Both Buzek and Dorocinski navigate the story with the appropriate comedy and menace — a combination that made this one of the biggest commercial hits in Polish cinema last year.

Similar Soviet-oppression themes pop up in "The Lesser Evil" ("Mniejsze Zlo"), a 2009 film from director Janusz Morgenstern.

Leslaw Zurek stars as Kamil Nowak, a young poet who's struggling to make his way during the 1980s, amid the rise of the Solidarity movement.

To avoid military service, the young man uses his good looks and sexual prowess to seduce various women, one of whom arranges to have him committed to a mental institution, where he begins an affair with a doctor.

His alcoholic father, meanwhile, switches alliances with the political winds, going from loyal party member to Solidarity backer. He explains to his son that his past collaborations with the Soviets have been part of an effort to provide for his family.

Kamil, however, is not much better. Unable to produce meaningful poetry or prose, he commits plagiarism. And much of the latter part of "The Lesser Evil," which screens Saturday, tracks his path to redemption.

"Rabbit a la Berlin," which also screens Saturday, has to be one of the most unusual documentaries ever to come from Poland. It looks at the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall through the eyes of a group of rabbits, who find safe haven in a small Potsdamer Platz meadow and watch the comings and goings of humans with bemusement.

In the meantime, they multiply, as rabbits are wont to do. Bartosz Konopka directs.

To close out Saturday's events, the festival will present the stylish thriller "Zero," directed by Pawel Borowski.

Like the 2004 Oscar-winning film "Crash," 2009's "Zero" tracks the interlocking lives of people during 24 hours. A thuggish pornographer discovers that his porn-star lover is pregnant. A desperate father tries to get enough money for his son's transplant, only to be a victim of another pornographer. And a company executive discovers that his wife is cheating on him with an employee.

Borowski uses a throbbing soundtrack to heighten the movie's noirish mood. And festival-goers will get to see one of the greatest new talents of the Polish New Wave.

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Austin Polish Film Festival

When: Starts today; continues Nov. 13-14

Cost: VIP passes are $50 and cover admission to all receptions and all film screenings. Tickets are available at www.austinpolishsociety.org/austinpff2010 or at the door. Details on individual tickets are given with various events and screenings below.

Schedule: 7 p.m. Friday: ‘Reverse,' directed by Borys Lankosz. Texas Spirit Theater at the Bullock Texas State History Musuem, 1800 N. Congress Ave. $30 at the door.

5:30 p.m. Saturday: ‘The Lesser Evil,' directed by Janusz Morgenstern. Also, ‘Rabbit a la Berlin,' directed by Bartosz Konopka; and ‘Zero,' directed by Pawel Borowski. $12. Texas Spirit Theater.

6:30 p.m. Sunday: ‘Lullaby,' directed by Juliusz Machulski; ‘Po-Lin, Slivers of Memory,' directed by Jolanta Dylewska; ‘Alien VI,' directed by Borys Lankosz. $12, Texas Spirit Theater.

12:30 to 4 p.m. Nov. 13: Anthology of Polish children's animation films. Snacks provided for children. Free. Austin Public Library, Howson Branch, 2500 Exposition.

5 to 8 p.m. Nov. 13: Documentaries, animations and shorts, with a Q&A with guest director Andrea Marks. Austin Film Society Screening Room, 1901 E. 51st St. $4 or free to Austin Polish Society and AFS members.

4 to 7 p.m., Nov. 14: Documentaries, animations and shorts. Carver Museum & Cultural Center, Boyd Vance Theatre, 1165 Angelina St. $4 or free to APS and AFS members

Also: Poster and photographs exhibit, ‘Streetwise: Polish Film Posters,' through Nov. 13. Open daily to the public, noon to 5 p.m. 912 Congress Ave. Free.