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By Elias Savada | June 20, 2014

Joanna Salyga is a pensive, thin thirty-something with close-cropped hair, who dotes on her inquisitive, playful, five-year-old son, Johnny, and loves her husband, Piotr, dearly. She tells the boy stories, offers to drive him to McDonald’s, helps him build something with his Legos, and takes him on a picnic outside the family home in the lake district. His response: “I am having a divine time here with you.”

So will you with this poignant, serene Polish short from Aneta Kopacz. It’s one of the three films in the “Shorts Program: Time Will Tell” at the 2014 edition of AFI DOCS. And maybe the reason the adolescent boy is having such a divine time with his mom is because she’s a saint. Not in the literary, Catholic sense, of course. Her sainthood would, say, be one where, if an egg were tossed at her face, she would smile or try to joke right through it. Now pretend that egg is actually a terminal illness and she has three months to live.

This is a slow-to-build heartbreaking story of a family with no secrets about the matriarch’s inevitable demise. Tear-stained nibbles, tender bits, and tactile slices of her memory float through the piece. At one point, Joanna calmly tells her husband of the pain, just before a smile breaks out, revealing the crow’s feet that crown her face. At another moment, continuing to maintain a sense of normalcy after realizing there’s nothing left to be done, she jokingly tells her husband, in a sad moment of concerned levity, that maybe she should hold an audition on her blog for his next wife.

The hand-held camera, always lurking close by, often has its focus pulled (perhaps mimicking how the film’s characters look at their troubled situation), and cinematographer Lukasz Zal tends to use a bit too much diffused, white light, although this semi-washed out veneer does reveal a close, intimate, and natural, yet dream-like, setting. The sparse, mournful, piano-centric score, which doesn’t start till half-way through the film’s 40 minutes, was composed by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (the Oscar-winning composer for “Finding Neverland“).

Yes, you’ll eventually shed a tear. The dead don’t cry, just us, the living. Joanna Salyga was a saint.

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