Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska has described her film Twarz/Mug (2018) as a ‘fairy tale for adults’, a provocatively beguiling definition of the Jury Grand Prix winner at Berlin this year. Irrespective of whether the audience might agree with that description of the film they watched, it was apposite on the closing night of the 2019 iteration of Chester’s International Film Festival on 20 March in the city’s charming Storyhouse, which commenced with the audience awarding the Best Animation prize to Tatiana Kublitskaya’s Pilipka (2012), a delightful fairy tale from Belarus.

The main feature presented a stark contrast, recounting the story of Jacek, a young heavy metalhead construction worker living in a remote Polish community riddled with narrow-minded attitudes towards outsiders, a tendency towards bawdy, expletive-filled, politically incorrect jokes and internecine squabbling over inheritances. Jacek dotes on his girlfriend, Dagmara, and dreams of relocating to London, despite the fact, as his brother-in-law bluntly points out, that the UK no longer wants any more foreigners, a view he fully endorses.

The protagonist is helping to construct a monumental statue of Christ, which the local Catholic priest is delighted will surpass the equivalent in Rio de Janiero, but after he suffers a serious accident Jacek’s life turns about face, literally. For Jacek becomes Poland’s first recipient of a face transplant, leaving him hideously disfigured and unable to speak properly. The once impish, good-looking young man is shunned by the community, treated as an outsider, a monster, including by Dagmara. His sister is the only person to stand by him.

The human body is something of a leitmotif through Szumowska’s oeuvre. Here the possible metaphorical interpretations of the face are left as open to the audience as the ending, when Jacek finally leaves, gazing up at the statue’s face, which appears to be averted from the village over which it towers. Ashamed by the prejudices of the village? Or the hubris of the Catholic Church?

The film’s relevance to a Europe troubled by a rise in xenophobia is axiomatic. Nonetheless, the film’s wickedly infectious vein of dark, absurdist humour, another feature of Szumowska’s work, lifts what might otherwise have been a rather downbeat, maudlin tale. The film opens with a hilariously surreal Black Friday-style event where the shoppers have to fight for goods in their underwear, and the variegated tone is thus set for more laughter than one might expect in such a disturbing tale. Mateusz Kosciukiewicz excels in the lead role, heart-rending at one moment, irreverent the next, making Jacek sympathetic, but not without his flaws.

Mug is the type of film that provokes reactions, and divides opinions; and that’s as it should be…

Prof Owen Evans is Professor in Film at Edge Hill University.

The Chester International Film Festival
09-20 March 2019, at Storyhouse, Chester
Curated by the I4P Director, Prof Jo Crotty, the annual Chester International Film Festival offers a remarkable selection of films that share stories and experiences from around the world. Three of this year’s films will be introduced by EHU academics, Prof Owen Evans (Mug), Prof Claire Parkinson (Dogman) and Dr Andrea Wright (Waru). #CIFF19