Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 11, 2019 4:58 pm 
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A young woman seeking a literary grandmother's legacy

In MS Slavic 7, the Canadian filmmakers take a real literary legacy of a sort, that of filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz, and blend it with putatively invented complications for a momentarily interesting series of vignettes. In them a determined young woman Audrey Benac, played by co-writer Deragh Campbell, who comes to the Houghton Library at Harvard to examine the eponymous file, containing letters in Polish from her great grandmother Zofia Bohdanowiczowa’s correspondence with Nobel Prize nominee Jozef Wittlin, making notes, as required, only with a pencil. This is puzzling, because later she has a drink with a translator, apparently hired by her, where they discuss an odd translation he has made (too literal, might we say?) using the word "mint," she asserts that she does not know a word of any language but English. He seems surprisingly passionate about the material, but I guess that's what makes a good translator of literary-related materia

There is a celebratory (memorial?) gathering, with an old couple who've been married sixty years, where the young woman encounters her aunt Ania (Elizabeth Rucker), who plainly disapproves of Audrey's studying the manuscripts, which she thinks either fraudulent on her part, because she lacks the academic qualifications for literary study, or exploitative, since she might get grants or publish books out of this for her own personal gain. Ania completely loses her cool. Later, is that the translator in bed with our young researcher and family literary executor? But it's chaste: they just read from translations of the Polish letters.

I can't make much out of this. But there is interesting material here. First of all, there is the young woman's pursuit of a plangent literary legacy. Second, there is the content of that legacy, a correspondence with the renowned Polish poet who was once a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature - a kind of literary romance heightened by the agony of exile, a kind of literary romance between members of the opposite sex who eventually meet in Toronto, where Zofia had settled, while Witlin had put down roots in New York. Was the meeting disappointing, because of the "gray," depressing city, or "apocalyptic"? Hints of both are dropped. Third, there is the competition, the jealousy, perhaps a conflict over custody of documents, and no doubt much more.

There is good material here, and an example of how literary or academic ephemera can make for drama is Joseph Cedar's suspenseful tragicomedy about warring father-don Talmudic scholars, Footnote (NYFF 2011). More recently one might think of Ricky D'Ambrose's Notes on an Appearance (ND/NF 2018), a film that plays with fragmentary literary hints in a poetic, mysterious wan and constructs a story out of them. Things don't come together quite as well in MS Slavic 7, but there is good raw material here for further work.

But others were more impressed at the Berlinale. Deborah Young, in her Hollywood Reporter review, approvingly speaks of the "industrious intellectual labor" required by this film, and describes it as 'the kind of offbeat indie that will intrigue college students and younger festgoers." She does admit that "In themselves, Zofia’s delicate letters full of anxiety and Wittlin’s evocative poems set in a war camp" - the essential raw material of the film - "offer nothing very new or striking." She thinks it is the hints of the Holocaust that make the theme resonate. In fact the whole here is more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the most touching part is Deragh Campbell's halting attempt, as Audrey, to define what makes old fashioned snail mail special. She seems to sense that it was, but for someone of her generation, it's all so theoretical.

MS Slavic 7, 64 mins., debuted at Berlin Feb. 2019. It was screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films of MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. This is its North American Premiere.


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