I Never Cry
And so, for me, the film festival came to an end. Based purely on the three films so far that I had seen, I can only see that quality wise it was a big of an iffy year: a half-decent film, a pretty good one, and then a third that I really didn’t like at all. Still time for things to go on an upswing of course, and I had a good feeling about the last film on my list, a Polish indie with a distinctly Irish flavour.
So, this was a total unknown for me. Not aware of the director, not aware of the cast, bar a few of the minor Irish roles, and I have no experience of dealing with any of the premise, thankfully. But that didn’t matter on this occasion, with that premise being interesting enough of its own accord. The Polish experience in Ireland, working often quite menial jobs very far from home, is a good mine for drama, especially when placed in the context of distant relatives who know the emigrant more as a source for revenue than as a family member. Was I Never Cry – Jak Najdalej Stad in the Polish – a good exploration of that state of affairs, and more importantly for my opinion or the medium, was it accurately marketed as a comedy? I caught a screening of I Never Cry through the Virgin Media International Film Festival.
When she learns that her father, a stevedore working in Dublin, has died in an accident, 17-year-old Olka (Zofia Stafiej) is tasked by her mother with travelling to Ireland to arrange repatriation of the body. She does so with reluctance, having barely known her father and conscious of her inexperience with foreign travel, and soon finds herself lost in a frustrating mix of expensive bureaucracy matched with a growing mystery about who her father actually was.
Well, the film festival has done it again. Perhaps it’s just because it is a sure fire way to get more people in the non-literal doors, but their penchant for describing a film that contains a few jokes as a “comedy” (or more often, a “dark comedy”, just to cover their bases) has become repeated to the point that it’s a bit of a bad joke among me and the people I know. I Never Cry is an interesting movie that has a lot of sometimes quite profound things to say, but it is not really as funny movie, and calling it a comedy just isn’t accurate, to put it bluntly.
Having gotten that out of the way, lets pretend that I want into I Never Cry with the right kinds of expectations, and evaluate it from there. I do think it’s a decent film. It’s got a strong central narrative, an engaging protagonist and forms in itself one of the more thought-provoking coming-of-age stories that I have seen in a while. With a quick set-up in Poland where we see the frustrated Olka – unable to pass a driving test, dealing with a nagging mother and a disabled brother, having the only somewhat unwanted attentions of the would-be teenaged lothario down the street – we pretty quickly get thrown into the meat-and-bones of the story, a modern-day fable of familial obligation clashing with cold-hard reality and teenaged cynicism.
The journey is one that is filled with a succession of impediments: in something like the Divine Comedy, Olka fills her Dublin days encountering a number of different people, who either offer a new obstacle to her quest or just add to the increasing number of layers that make-up her now deceased father. There’s the work agent (Arkadiusz Jakubik) who helped employ her father, who seems to represent a diaspora that has made its home permanently outside of the mother country; the cheap-as-chips funeral director (Shane Casey, of The Young Offenders) who can only shrug as he tries to soften the blow of the enormous costs of moving a dead body between countries with some ill-timed Irish wit; the site manager (Nigel O’Neill) who is more concerned with what union rules Olka’s father was breaking at the time he was killed than his actual death; the mysterious woman (Cosmima Stratan) who appears to have been more than just a friend to the deceased, and perhaps represents a different, more hopeless, aspect of Irish immigration; and her exploitative boss (David Pearse), the closest the film gets to something resembling a villain.
I Never Cry goes through this laundry-list of experiences with decent pace, never stopping too long in any given scene or sequence. The only real character of consequence is Olka, who begins her journey in the firm belief that her father was a distant stranger good only for the car he promised to buy her one day, and ends it in a somewhat different place entirely. As the title would seem to indicate, Olka is a young woman not pre-disposed to displays of emotion, and treats the Sisyphean task of getting her father’s remains home more as an annoying, and often frustrating, chore, rather than a labour of love. Understanding how her father died, what his life was like in Ireland and what’s really important when it comes to things like money, are the main waypoints between arriving in Ireland and getting back to her home country. Getting to know our father is something everyone wants to do, but having to do it after they die makes for some fascinating story-telling. And in the end Olka really only learns a very small amount, left in largely as much ignorance as she was when she started, save for a few critical details.
Stafiej is quite good in the lead role, capturing something of the teenage mindset when it comes to their parents, their expectations and what they think of an increasingly bleak globalised world. Her grief and rage mix together well, creating an emotion of stubborn steadfastness in her goal, reflected in the films title. She’s a veritable tornado on screen, always moving, always finding ways around the roadblocks that are put in her path, dead set on achieving the kind of independence she desires. There are times when I Never Cry lets her down a bit – a whole sequence where she goes drinking with some strangers she has met up with didn’t seem very necessary really – but she does an excellent job with what must be considered a fairly challenging part. Adolescent sullenness is such a hard thing to accurately capture on-screen, without coming off like a cartoon or a maniac, but she nails it, this facade of stubborn nonchalance that masks a crippling maelstrom of emotional turmoil. Through the series of encounters that Olka goes through, we see her grow and mature a little bit, coming to realise that her father was more than a regularly sent cheque: Stafiej brings us through that with skill. The other cast members simply don’t have the time to make much of an impact, save Stratan as Sara, the woman that Olka’s father appears to have been having an affair with.
In the end, I Never Cry does a more than decent job of exploring the realities of the emigrant experience, and of giving us a look into the heart of what it means to be an emigrant nation, to be, as the director put it in an interview, a “euro-orphan”. Irish audiences, who are perhaps slipping back into the cozy ease of dismissing our past status as such a thing once again, could do worse than watch this film as a reminder, that only a few years ago you could have made this film about an Irish teenager travelling to Britain, the States, Canada or Australia to repatriate their fathers dead body. Indeed, if you treat the Celtic Tiger as the aberration it really was, then we have been a similar kind of emigrant nation longer than we haven’t. I Never Cry and the trauma and melding of cultures that it represents, should more easily find a mark here than it would in other places.
Director/writer Piotr Domalewski, known mostly in his own country, directs a fairly basic production. I Never Cry has a style I would almost call documentarian, very down-to-earth, principal focused, with the camera, hand-held, often bobbing along right next to Olka’s head, with the Polish and Dublin backgrounds just distant scenery, often out of focus. Olka always seems to be moving, rushing from one obstacle to the next, and scenes where she is standing still have a sort of strange quality as a result. There’s an honesty in the cinematography of Dublin that I do appreciate in many ways: no tourism video here, just a frequently drab city that has rare moments of life, that reflects the reality of how the immigrant worker might see the city: a place of grey buildings, colourless beaches, building sites, packed apartments and more rainy days than sunny. It’s not dissimilar of course to the way that Olka’s home city is treated, with similar apartment blocks and backed-up traffic, and I suppose that is intentional, drawing a line from one place to another, the Polish heart and its home-away-from-home.
I wouldn’t call I Never Cry a disappointment per say. It was certainly mis-advertised a bit, but that isn’t its fault. It has an engaging story of familial exploration in trying circumstances, a strong central performance from the lead and a host of others who weave in and out of the story, and is shot well. On the other hand it is perhaps a bit too long with a few superfluous scenes/sequences, would perhaps be better off leaving out any pretensions of being a dark comedy and heaps too much pressure on Stafiej’s shoulders to carry the film entirely on her own. In the final assessment, it’s a good example of cinema from the eastern half of Europe, and positively unique in the way it identifies as being from that area while having a distinctly Irish character in so many ways. The apogee of the Polish community in Ireland, in terms of numbers, may have been reached a few years ago but they remain a key part of the demographics of our island. This film will give an Irish audience at least a partial understanding of their experience, and allow us to draw even greater the connection between two emigrant nations. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Forum Field Polan).