On Cinema

Awful States

Two political thrillers reveal the intimate cruelties of life under dictatorship

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Anyone watching Leave No Traces, the political thriller that is Poland’s official entry for Best International Feature Film at the coming Oscars, is likely to feel some sympathy for the Law and Justice Party’s efforts since 2015 to purge Communist era judges from the country’s courts, which is the reason for the Polish government’s continuing dispute with the European Union.
In 2017, 15 out of about 60 judges on the Supreme Court had served during the last communist Supreme Court term (1986 1990), while the judge who headed the Military Chamber of the Supreme Court from 1990 to 2016 had been a Communist military judge in the 1970s and 80s.
Leave No Traces is Poland’s equivalent of Costa Gavras’s 1969 classic Z, although the victim is an ordinary citizen rather than a politician opposed to the regime. The film is the first feature directed by Jan Paweł Matuszyński, who was born one year after the events the film describes.

 Leave No Traces is two hours and forty minutes of bleak despair only occasionally leavened by some black comedy

Set in Warsaw in 1983, under General Jaruzelski’s rule, just after martial law was lifted, the story concerns a couple of long haired male high school graduates who are engaging in some high spirited behaviour in Castle Square when they are detained by members of the Citizens’ Militia (above). Back at the police station they are both roughed up but one of them, Grzegorz Przemyk (Mateusz Górski), is kicked almost to death while lying on the floor.

He is taken to hospital by a pair of medical orderlies, who are told by the militia that he is psychologically disturbed. Once discharged to his parental home his physical injuries cause him to vomit up his own faeces and he dies.
What follows is his family’s and his friend’s forlorn attempt to obtain justice on his behalf, during which the authorities shift blame for the murder from the militia to the medical orderlies and seek to discredit his friend, Jurek Popiel (Tomasz Zietek), the only witness to the beating — he was in the room but did not see everything — by revealing that he had been seduced by the victim’s mother, the dissident poet Barbara Sadowska, while Jurek’s father, a former soldier and an informer, is told to pressure him to change his testimony (screenwriter Kaja Krawczyk Wnuk has compressed various real life stories into Jurek’s character).

Based on an award winning non fiction book of the same name by the journalist Cezary Łazarewicz, Leave No Traces is two hours and forty minutes of bleak despair only occasionally leavened by some black comedy, as with the splendid battleaxe of a female prosecutor (Aleksandra Konieczna).
It is a tale of historical importance, and although the atmosphere of the period is faithfully recreated, with a subdued colour palette, and the viciousness and corruption of the system is clearly conveyed, the director lacks the lightness of touch and visual flair of a Costa Gavras.
We learn in the end that the falsely accused medical orderlies were later released but that the real culprits have never been brought to justice, and while tens of thousands attended the real life funeral of Grzegorz Przemyk his grave has since been desecrated.

Azor is another political thriller, this time set in Argentina in 1980. The protagonist, Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), is a Swiss banker who is navigating the Buenos Aires establishment during the rule of the military junta, when thousands of citizens disappear and their property is confiscated. As Yvan and his wife, Ines, are driven into town from the airport, they witness two youths being arrested in the street.


Harry Lime does not appear until more than halfway through The Third Man, while in Azor Yvan’s former partner, René Keys, is talked about throughout but never appears. Has he absconded or been killed? Everyone has a different assessment of the man.

It is an object lesson in the power of cinematic suggestion

Keys is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin, a plot device that is everywhere but leads nowhere. The challenge faced by Yvan is this: is he a true alpha male, inheritor of the family firm’s ruthlessness, and is he a match for the presumed ingenuity of Keys, or will he turn out to be a damp squib?

This is a first feature by the writer and director, Andreas Fontana, who comes from a Swiss banking family. The film conveys a powerful sense of a world in which the masses barely register except in the abstract. All the violence in Azor — banker’s parlance for “keep quiet” — is off screen, notional, detached. It is an object lesson in the power of cinematic suggestion.

In one chilling episode, Yvan enjoys a drink with an oleaginous, silver haired prelate, Monsignor Tatoski, who refers to the troubles the country is going through as “a purification phase”. It is a chilling performance by an amateur actor (Pablo Torre Nilson).

Whereas the Neo realists often used amateur actors for reasons of authenticity, peasants playing peasants, much of Fontana’s cast of amoral super rich are playing themselves, and in interviews the director has marvelled at their lack of a sense of irony.
At a mysterious enclosure protected by armed paramilitaries, Yvan is presented with an inventory of industrial equipment. What price will he pay for these things? Suddenly, he is all business, demanding a special percentage for handling dubious property. The private banker genes have reasserted themselves. And that final trace of a smile on his lips suggests that he has embraced his destiny, if somewhat belatedly.

Leave No Traces will be released in due course; Azor is in cinemas now and on Curzon Home Video

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