First was the word… Szafranowicz

First was the word (review of ZERO, a film by Paweł Borowski)

ZERO, the début film by Pawel Borowski, is another example of the ongoing crisis in Polish screenwriting. What good is excellent direction, cinematography, acting or sound production – even if it is the best of its kind – if the most important organ in the body of the film – the script – is poorly thought through?

It’s not possible, thanks to its unusual narrative construction, to compress the plot of “Zero” down to a few lines. It seems the hub of this multi-layered story is the figure of the director of an unnamed company, who hires two rather wacky, down-at-heel detectives to follow his wife who, as we later learn, has rented a small apartment to host meetings with her lover. To spice up this narrative thread, Borowski dissects it with other plot lines: lingering shots direct our attention towards other characters – a taxi driver, newspaper seller, a nurse, a go-go dancer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Initially, we follow these with interest, expecting something we haven’t yet seen before. The scope of this strategy brings to mind Anderson’s “Magnolia”, in the distance accentuated with echoes of Iñárritu and Arriaga. We are curious as to how this wildly varied group of individuals will be brought together by the all-powerful screenwriter’s pen.  

Instead, however, our attention is diverted by the realisation that as the character count keeps rising the film begins to resemble a pilot for an upcoming television saga. The collage of characters never seems to end! To name but a few: a woman, fifty-plus, who hires a male prostitute, an emotionally wrecked producer of porn films, a policeman, a student, an ageing paedophile, a young barman with a shady past, a travelling salesman – the list is endless…

Where are Borowski’s cameras taking us? What are they trying to say? Something about loneliness in the big city? About the breakdown in interpersonal communication? Or maybe a parabolic parable, crowded with cypher-characters? It seems all of that, all at once, though we can only guess at what the director was trying to say, not see it on screen, down to absence of invention and clear plot development which would allow all the storyline crumbs to come together into a coherent whole.

We watch ZERO with an ever-deepening sense of disillusionment. Borowski weaves a film out tiny, insignificant incidents, constantly switching between unexceptional protagonists, always promising to have the rambling script takes us somewhere it never eventually delivers. Overall, much happens on screen, but then again nothing at all, nothing we could engage with, emotionally or dramatically. With a more effective structure and better script ZERO could have helped us dissect our modern world, people with individuals unable to communicate or connect with one another, or themselves, and though we can guess this is what Borowski intended, intentions do not a film make.

Right up until the last shot, it’s clear the film should have been ambitious, fresh, visionary, and one cannot fault Borowski the scope of what he tried to achieve. Gathering the cream of Polish acting talent, a brilliant cinematographer and a hard-working producer should have been enough. And yet the conclusion is painful: it was all for nothing. ZERO turns out to be just another blatant example of the malaise affecting our cinema – technically speaking, our film-makers are able to keep up with the world’s best, and yet the stories they tell feel tired, which is a shame considering in film, as in everything, the word comes first.

© 2010 Jacek Szafranowicz

read the original po polsku tutaj