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Haunting 'Big Animal' carries a heavy burden

When he died in 1996, the Polish writer and director Krzysztof Kieslowski left behind more than four dozen shorts and features -- including his masterpieces "The Decalogue" and the "Three Colors" trilogy -- and a few unmade scripts. Some have since been turned into films and, like his best work, they espouse a trenchant, existential humanism. In 2002, the German filmmaker Tom Tykwer filmed Kieslowski's screenplay for "Heaven," in which Cate Blanchett played a widowed schoolteacher who plants a bomb that kills the wrong people, innocent ones.

And four years ago, Jerzy Stuhr, a friend of Kieslowski's and a regular in his movies, directed a script called "The Big Animal," which begins a painfully brief weekend run today at the Brattle. It's a ludicrous yet haunting fable about a towering Bactrian camel (it has two steep humps) that has been abandoned by its circus owner and shows up outside the kitchen window of a couple in a Polish town. The husband, Zygmunt Sawicki (Stuhr), a large, gentle fellow, makes it his pet, walking the majestic creature through his prosperous town on a leash.

Gradually, his pride in the beast starts to change his daily life. He's a few minutes late for work. His clarinet playing, which initially inspires the camel to sing along, goes flat. But most of all, he's turned happy and poetic -- his life suddenly has meaning outside his normal routine.

As far as the citizenry is concerned, something is clearly wrong. People begin to inquire about the camel's practical function, concentrating only on the problems it presents: Won't it bring disease, a woman asks. When will it stop relieving itself in the streets? Soon children are throwing apples at it or trying to climb aboard. Others wonder how the town can benefit or, even better, profit from Sawicki's desert beast. Can it be sold? My favorite suggestion to the poor man, once he's subjected to a formal hearing, is that they build a "mini-zoo" around his camel. They almost literally try to tax his bliss.

"The Big Animal" gathers a sort of darkness as it comes to its oblique conclusion. As if the appearance of the camel weren't odd enough, the increasingly outrageous demands placed on it turn the film into a robust satire of modern Poland's history of political conformity and social repression. The photography is by Pawel Edelman, who also shot Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," and his vivid framing and handheld work in this movie linger, surreally. He's shot the picture in the stark, expressive, and enchanted black and white of the Czech-Polish new wave -- or "The Twilight Zone," with Kieslowski, somewhere, doing his best Rod Serling.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

The Big Animal
Directed by: Jerzy Stuhr
Written by: Krzysztof Kieslowski, from the novel by Kazimierz Orlos
Starring: Stuhr, Anna Dymna,

Dominika Bednarczyk, BlazejWojcik, and Rubio from the Zalewski Circus as the camel
At: Brattle Theatre, through tomorrow
Running time: 72 minutes
In Polish, with subtitles

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