Dir: Olaf Lubaszenko. Poland 2012. 105mins
The past doesn’t seem such a foreign country in the riotous retro-comedy Polish Roulette (Sztos 2), where some tricksters with plenty of confidence tussle with corrupt cops and not-too-secret police as Martial Law grips Poland in the snowy winter of 1981.
With lively pacing and some lovely colours, the film fields a cast of local stars who career across some of Poland’s most picturesque locales, in search of an easy buck, zloty, or franc in an era before the euro, but when wodka flowed like water.
With his sixth film as director, actor and co-writer Olaf Lubaszenko re-unites some of the characters and crew from his debut feature, Sztos, which back in 1997 proved a popular domestic hit and launched a string of Western-style crime comedies, a kind of New Polish Cinema of Moral Indifference.
In the central role is again the seasoned cabarettist and comic actor Cezary Pazura as Sonny, now teamed with the younger Janek (Boris Szyc, a rising star, recently a lead in The Battle of Warsaw: 1920), who has a nice line in stuttering when challenged by justly-suspicious authorities.
The attention to period detail is consistent and impressive, from the outlandish garbs of almost everyone not in uniform, to the prevalent queues in daytime streets, and the sardonic announcements in railway-stations “All trains are cancelled until further notice”.
But the camerawork is contemporary, and wide-screen, and uses a palette that would not look out of place in Almodovar, or David Hockney’s latest frames. There is a visually exquisite sequence, when Martial Law is announced and the broadcast is caught in rich colour on an old box television, while the surrounding room briefly fades to black and white.
As the swindlers cheat their way from Zakopane to Krakow, an old scene-painter (Edward Linde, Lubaszenko’s real-life father) begs them to smuggle a Solidarity supporter into Warsaw, with forged documents.
The final sting is an elaborate coup (not without an echo of Rififi) set in the fabled Grand Hotel in sea-side Sopot, where the guests did include a certain A. Hitler, who here puts in a psychedelic appearance. The master-trickster Eryk (suavely played by veteran Jan Nowicki) hatches a plot to relieve the crafty agent Krolik (Wajda regular Boguslaw Linda in a memorably unrestrained performance) of his stash of hard cash, expense accounts not accounted for. Naturally, there is a twist in the tail of the sting, and the sardonic suggestion that the dosh ends up in Solidarnosc hands.
Though firmly set in 1981, the Latin quotes, never mind the currency-exchange rates, give this tale of guys and some very strange dolls a kind of timelessness, or perhaps timeliness. The roulette wheel has come full circle, and the Poles are not so far apart when it comes to comedy. Sztos 2 opened across Poland on 140 screens on January 20, and is released - as Polish Roulette - on 40 UK screens on January 27.
Production Company: Cezar 10 Sp., TP S.A., MK Marketing Marcin Kacak, Polish Film Institute
International sales: Cooltura Films, www.coolturafilms.co.uk
Producers: Cezary Pazura, Andrzej Banasik
Screenplay: Olaf Lubaszenko, Jerzy Kolasa
Cinematography: Piotr Wojtowicz
Editor: Wanda Zemann
Production designer: Joanna Macha
Main cast: Cezary Pazura, Boris Szyc, Boguslaw Linda, Jan Nowicki, Olaf Lubaszenko, Edward Linde, Bartlomiej Topa