April 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Spoor’ review: Agnieszka Holland unleashes an eco-feminist heroine

It took nearly four years for legendary Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s “Spoor” to reach American screens. In 2017, “Spoor” won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, and was selected as Poland’s Oscar entry in addition to receiving special notices from both the National Society of Film Critics and the Indiewire Critics Poll as the best film awaiting distribution. It finally arrives on VOD Jan. 22, thanks to Samuel Goldwyn Films. This wildly entertaining eco-feminist crime caper, anchored by a winning lead performance from Agnieszka Mandat, isn’t just worth the wait, it’s an imperative watch.

Holland adapted the script from Nobel Prize-winning author Olga Tokarczuk‘s 2009 novel, “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.” The film’s Polish title, “Pokot,” refers to the traditional ritual ending of a group hunting expedition, a count of the slaughtered animals, while “Spoor,” derived from Dutch, means the track or scent of an animal. Both titles accurately reflect the events and themes of this film, an energizing work of art about the violence humans inflict on animals and each other, and a woman who seeks to disrupt that status quo within her small town.

Mandat stars as Janina Duszejko (but never call her Janina), a retired civil engineer putting the language skills she acquired building bridges in Syria and Libya to use teaching English to school kids part-time. She lives a contented, solitary life in a remote and beautiful corner of the forest near the Polish-Czech border with her two beloved dogs, making sense of the world and the people in it through her astrology practice. But there’s a darkness in this place too, with hunters’ gunshots reverberating through the quiet woods and cries from a fox fur farm disturbing the comings and goings of the wild animals that frolic and creep around Duszejko’s home.

One day she offers a ride to gruff hunter/fox farmer Wnetrzak (Borys Szyc) and his young female companion and employee, Dobra (Patricia Volny), who are stranded with car trouble in the woods. It’s an encounter that pierces Duszejko’s pleasant bubble, hinting at the unsavory actions of men that happen under the cover of night here. But when her treasured dogs go missing and a neighbor who has been illegally poaching animals turns up dead, Duszejko is set on her righteous path, fighting for animal rights while a murder mystery erupts around her.

A percussive score by Antoni Lazarkiewicz powers the film and thrums along swiftly, referencing traditional hunting horns as the camera sweeps over majestic vistas, an untamed landscape peppered with the soft movements of wild boar and roe deer. As Duszejko’s nemeses in town drop dead, a baffling question emerges: Just who is the hunted, and who is the hunter?

“Spoor” races along on our heroine’s determination, quick pace and a character-jammed plot, punctuated by Duszejko’s seemingly psychic visions about the people around her. Mandat‘s performance is as lively and good-humored as it is full of rage and sorrow, and the film has tinges of dark, ironic levity, as well as a reverence for the spirituality of nature; it’s like a Coen Brothers’ film set in the world of Terrence Malick.

However, and respect due, this is the kind of film that never could never have been made by men. Tokarczuk and Holland give us an older female heroine driven by mysticism, astrology, legend and her primal, personal connection to plants and animals: ancient, feminine ways of knowing that are scoffed at by men. She fights back against this bloodthirsty, exploitative patriarchy, which often seems futile, but as bodies pile up mysteriously, surrounded by insects and animal tracks, it seems like nature is on her side.

This film is feminist, indeed, but not misandrist. In her quest, Duszejko finds connection and kinship with several men, including a gruff neighbor who slowly opens up to her, a brilliant Czech entomologist and a young police techie with epilepsy. Duszejko’s influence on those around her and her warm, welcoming demeanor imagines the ways in which feminism is for everyone, including repressed older men and disabled young men, sex workers and abused wives, children and animals.

As much as “Spoor” is a rollicking murder-mystery, it’s also an intimate exploration and portrait of one woman’s life and her connection to nature, which is, of course, her connection to herself and other human beings. That interconnectivity models a utopian vision for the world, a deliciously tangible image crafted by Holland with a singular kind of graceful wisdom, coupled with a trenchant message: Never come between a woman and her dogs.

‘Spoor’

In Polish and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes

Playing: Available Jan. 22 on VOD