WROCLAW, Poland — An explosively auspicious screen debut from live-wire twentysomething Marcin Kowalczyk isn’t enough to save You Are God (Jesteś Bogiem), a disappointingly low-key chronicle of Poland’s most influential late-1990s/early-2000s hip-hop crew.
Enduring local interest in the Katowice-based threesome Paktofonika should in theory yield healthy box-office returns after the domestic Sept. 21 bow. But, given the nature of the target demographic, it’s likely that illicit downloads could exact an unusually severe toll.
Word-of-mouth for this long-awaited project seems unlikely to improve matters on any front, while in terms of international exposure Paktofonika’s lower profile may be counterbalanced by a hat-trick of prizes from Poland’s national film-festival at Gdynia in May.
Leszek Dawid, an accomplished documentarian whose debut fictional feature My Name Is Ki premiered at Venice last September and is still doing the festival rounds, picked up a gong for his direction. Dawid Ogrodnik and Tomasz Schuchardt shared supporting actor honors, while Kowalczyk was named best newcomer for his engagingl nuanced performance as the band’s quicksilver, ill-fated frontman “Magik” (Polish for “Magician”).
But these contributions are stymied by fundamental deficiencies in Maciej Pisuk‘s screenplay. It’s Pisuk’s first film credit, though he did write a 2008 book tracing Paktofonika’s meteoric rise to fame and their enduring impact on the Polish cultural scene.
Nearly a dozen years have passed since Magik’s jarringly unexpected suicide at the age of 22, and during this time interest has steadily built in the mooted movie based on his life. One commentator even noted that the project was in some quarters seen as potentially becoming the present generation’s equivalent of Andrzej Wajda‘s seminal Man of Marble (1976).
The finished product evidently has more recent antecedents in mind, including Curtis Hanson‘s Oscar-winning 8 Mile (2002), loosely based on the early life of its star Eminem, and particularly Anton Corbijn‘s Control (2007), which so shatteringly dramatized the career of Britain’s influentially doom-laden new-wave band Joy Division by concentrating on its tormented frontman Ian Curtis.
Curtis was 23 when he hanged himself, and it’s no stretch to say that for many Poles the sudden death of Piotr “Magik” Łuszcz was a similarly epoch-defining, epoch-ending event. But while Control em pathetically and atmospherically provided the cultural and psychological background for Curtis’s actions without offering facile explanations, You Are God — the title inspired by one of Paktofonika’s most famous songs, “I’m a God” — too rapidly plunges the seemingly resilient, ebulliently confident and startlingly talented Magik into a maelstrom of negativity.
His domestic problems with wife Justyna (Katarzyna Wajda) are presented in clunkily contrived ways that rely heavily on wild coincidences, and symptoms of apparent mental illness spring up almost from nowhere. In wider terms, while we see Paktofonika move from a two-dimensionally unscrupulous agent to a more sympathetic — but also more shambolic — replacement, there’s little sense of their rising national profile.
Nor is it easy to grasp their importance to Poland’s youth at a crucial stage in the nation’s transition from a Soviet-dominated past towards EU integration. The net result is an episodic, monotonous affair, which takes its downbeat tone and gray-blue color-palette from the depressing Katowice environs from which the sparkily confrontational Paktofonika derived their inspiration.
And while Kowalczyk’s combination of magnetism, volatility and vulnerability elevate proceedings whenever he’s on screen, too often this is a sluggish plod of a picture, one whose interminable end credits see it sprawl beyond the two-hour barrier. The filmmakers’ intentions are unarguably honorable: to do justice to a remarkable creative figure and to commemorate his memory.
But the heavy burden of responsibility seems to have become a crushing weight on Dawid and company’s creative impulses: thanks to Kowalczyk their Magik is indeed magic, but You Are God itself falls a long way short of the divine.
Venue: New Horizons Film Festival
Production company: Kadr Film Studio
Cast: Marcin Kowalczyk, Dawid Ogrodnik, Tomasz Schuchardt, Katarzyna Wajda, Arkadiusz Jakubik
Director: Leszek Dawid
Screenwriter: Maciej Pisuk
Producers: Jerzy Kapuściński, Łukasz Barczyk
Executive producer: Wojciech Kabarowski
Director of photography: Radosław Ładczuk
Production designers: Katarzyna Sobańska, Marcel Sławiński
Music: Paktofonika, Wojciech Alszer, Sebastian Salbert
Costume designer: Agata Kulak
Editor: Jarosław Kamiński
Sales agent: Kino Świat, Warsaw
No MPAA rating, 124 minutes.