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THE HAPPY MAN (Szczesliwy Czlowiek)

By Rich Cline | February 9, 2004

Young filmmaker Szumowska shows a remarkable level of skill on her debut feature–an assured sense of character and narrative. Janek (Jankowski) is nearly 30 and is still unemployed and living with his mother (Jankowska-Cieslak), who takes care of him. Then she gets cancer and he slowly develops a sense of responsibility, looking for ways to help her feel better about him. He’s interested in Marta (Chajewska-Krzysztofik), a single mother working in a nearby factory, so he pursues her as well as a money-making scheme. But does he really have the personal skills to make his life better? Or to even take care of himself? Yes, the title is just a wee bit ironic. But Szumowska’s strong camera work and clever script help us stick with these characters through their ordeal. The film has a classic look to it–like the work of a master filmmaker who can get to the bottom of a character or situation without needing lots of words or obvious signposting. These are not particularly likeable people, which makes it a bit hard to get involved with them. Janek is such a lump that we never understand why Marta is interested in him at all, let alone why she sticks with him when things get messy. And both Janek and his mother are such bundles of stunted emotions that you can understand how they’ve arrived at this communicative impasse. But the cast deliver clear, uncluttered performances that make these earthy, real people come alive in meaningful ways.

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