Film Review | Mug

Showing at this year’s edition of the Valletta Film Festival, Malgorzata Szumowska’s Mug is an incisive dressing-down of Polish society while also being a compassionate character piece • 4/5 

Mug
Mug

The celebration of outsiders will always be a compelling reference point for artists everywhere, but with this Polish entry at the Valletta Film Festival – an entry which debuted at the Berlinale last February – acclaimed director Malgorzata Szumowska brings a humane though incisive touch to a storytelling trope which all-too-often devolves into fist-pumping nothingness.

Because while Jacek (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) is an outsider in the small Polish rural town he lives and works in, he still fits in relatively OK on the whole, chugging away at his industrial job and making sure to chuckle at even the most horribly racist jokes at the family gathering during Christmastime. Nevermind that he has a penchant for heavy metal music – Metallica’s latest single, the upbeat chug-a-thon ‘Hardwired’, is something of a musical motif for the film – and that he wears long hair and spiky band T-shirts to match. They may wish for him to clean up a little bit, but in the eyes of the clerical class that still wields a grip on this community, he’s doing good work – contributing his bit to create an imposing Jesus statue to rival the one in Rio de Janeiro.

He’s even decided to marry his girlfriend Dagmara (Malgorzata Gorol), who is similarly free-spirited and supportive of Jacek’s ultimate dream of finding a better life elsewhere, a project that otherwise only finds a friendly ear with Jacek’s sister (Agnieszka Podsiadlik).

But a workplace accident changes Jacek’s otherwise placid existence. Disfigured beyond recognition, he becomes a guinea pig for Poland’s very first facial transplant operation. Though the delicate procedure goes as well it can go given the circumstances, life takes a sudden swerve for our now-tragic hero, and he finds that this tight-knit and devoutly Catholic community has a serious compassion-deficit at its core.

The premise is tight as a drum and would survive even the most cutthroat of Hollywood scenarios, but Szumowska – who made serious waves with the award-winning In the Name Of (2013) – does not go the facile route. With strange but compelling framing (often deliberately blurring the edges of the shots) she embeds us into this community. Working class squalor is contrasted with bucolic splendour, while the lack of a ‘way out’ is emphasised by the claustrophobic family networks that surround Jacek at all times, but offer very little by way of comfort when tragedy befalls him.

But while an allegory for Christ is definitely there, and while the condemnation of the Catholic milieu of the film is put across much in the way we’ve come to expect – the Church is more than willing to pay lavishly for their ridiculous Christ statue, while asking for pennies from the congregation is as far as they’ll go when it comes to helping pay for Jacek’s medical treatment –  Szumowska’s eye for dark humour leavens the misery.

Ultimately, this is the story of an independent spirit who deals with a problematic situation admirably. Like Christ, he’s humiliated by fate, but we all know that shame should be apportioned to those around him instead.

 

Mug will be screened as part of this year’s edition of the Valletta Film Festival on June 13 (Pjazza Teatru Rjal; 21:00), June 14 (Embassy Cinemas; 20:30) and June 15 (Embassy Cinemas; 16:00). For tickets and more information, log on to: https://www.vallettafilmfestival.com/film/mug/

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