Focus on Mug

From Mug movie

We weren’t disappointed with Małgorzata Szumowska’s return to the Berlin Film Festival competition with Mug (after In the Name Of and Body, which both received awards, the latter winning the Silver Bear for Best Direction). This superb Polish film-maker has produced a very open and human work, centred around a rather brilliant premise (the idea of a person literally losing their face), in a context that’s both wholly ordinary and totally insane (a small provincial town that takes it upon itself to erect a statue of Christ "bigger than the one in Rio " – inspired by the 33 metre Christ the King statue built in Świebodzin ten years ago), and the whole is achieved in such an assured and unpretentious style – and right from the get-go, with the one-word title of the film – despite the scope of the subjects explored in the film.

The story works in the style of a polyphony where the main voice is the quietest, and around this voice a number of themes unfurl: the theme of pig heads, used in the film to suggest the fundamental brutality of the world (in the style of William Golding); the theme of the gregariousness of a community that is, on the one hand, fixed in its beliefs (even the surgeon puts God’s will before his own medical competency) but, on the other, displays a frightening tendency towards over-excitement (whether over religion, discount operations or television). At the heart of this universe, we meet Jacek (Mateusz Kościukiewicz), a kind-hearted, long-haired rebel and Metallica fan, who is continually driven on by some kind of inner force, a force that transforms into a radiant body of light when he comes face-to-face with his girlfriend, even in the midst of the most sordid wedding party.

We’re becoming very attached to Jacek when suddenly, on the sacred-statue building site, he literally falls into the body of Christ. He is disfigured and goes on to receive the first facial graft in Europe, another source of pride for the little town. Not that the community is willing to help Jacek financially (despite the fact that he has also lost the power of speech and is only able to express himself through gurgles). Like Frankenstein or the Elephant Man, Jacek is rejected: children laugh at him, his girlfriend runs away, and his mother believes her son is possessed by the Devil. His sister is the only one who is still able to see him for who he really is and in no time at all, so can the audience because a light shines bright within Jacek: his humanity, which shows itself in his humour (of which there is a lot in the film – the priest, for example, is priceless in the confession scenes) and in his gentle nature. He is a victim and yet he never laments his fate, not even when others react in shock or back away from him.

Through this mute character, the wise and tender approach that we so readily associate with Szumowska shines through, permeating the body of the film itself. This is an approach that is honest yet free of all judgement. His gentle and understated manner is present in each and every delightful scene and each and every shot, ever meticulous and attentive. Nothing is set is stone from the beginning; the meaning of each painting, and of the film itself, comes to light little by little, softly, without forcing itself, gradually opening up our minds, in the vein of the town’s lofty statue of Christ, who opens his arms from up high on his hill, stretching them out either side of him with his head turned to the right; a divine traffic officer with a golden crown sparkling in the sunlight resting upon his head.

Mug was produced by Nowhere (Warsaw), with international film sales managed by the French agency Memento Films International.