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With: Jerzy Stuhr, Anna Dymna, Dominika Bednarczyk, Blazej Wojcik
Written by: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Directed by: Jerzy Stuhr
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Polish with English subtitles
Running Time: 75
Date: 03/19/2013

The Big Animal (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hump Day

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Posthumous screenplays are always an exciting prospect, and almost always come out with mixed results. Orson Welles' screenplay The Big Brass Ring became a made-for-cable dud that had changed so much during production that it barely resembled the original script. Francois Truffaut's story The Little Thief became a middling film lacking the director's touch, and John Cassavetes' She's So Lovely (originally She's De Lovely) became an interesting failure starring Sean Penn and John Travolta.

Now a screenplay by the great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996), creator of ambitious epics such as the ten-part The Decalogue and the three-part Three Colors Trilogy, sees the light of day. Despite the spotty history of such endeavors, I approached this new film The Big Animal with great enthusiasm, and I was not disappointed.

Actor Jerzy Stuhr, who appeared in Kieslowski's White, one episode of The Decalogue, and several other of his films, takes over the directing chores for The Big Animal and casts himself as Sawicki, a humble man in a small Polish town. At dinner one night, he and his wife (Anna Dymna) glance out the window and notice a camel in their yard. (He had been abandoned by a traveling circus for some unexplained reason.)

Sawicki quickly falls for the large creature and begins going through the motions to keep him as a pet, trying to get him registered, and building an expensive barn to keep him out of the cold.

At first Sawicki's neighbors and the other townspeople are enchanted by the beast, trying to get pictures of him, pet him, ride him, and whatnot. (I never knew that something as vulgar as a camel could have such a marvelous screen presence.) But Sawicki grows protective of his new friend and prohibits any unwanted attention. Before long, the town's mood changes and Sawicki can't even bring the camel to the local school for a hands-on lesson in camel etiquette.

The Big Animal couldn't be more unlike Kieslowski's other films, which all reach for ambitious questions of life, God and duality. This is a simple, lovely little film that works as both a family movie and a parable about greed and jealousy and pettiness. It only runs 75 minutes and is photographed in gorgeous black and white, emphasizing the classical, timeless nature of the story, but also Poland's biting cold weather.

I wrestled with giving The Big Animal a four-star "masterpiece" rating, but I'm not sure it qualifies as something that huge, and it doesn't particularly have Kieslowski's stamp on it. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it thoroughly and without reservation, and I would see it again in a heartbeat.

Note: The Big Animal opened in 2004 on a double bill with Hukkle.

DVD Details: Milestone has finally released this wonderful film on DVD, and it's a keeper in my library (aided by the fact that they blurbed my review on the video box). Extras include an interview with the director, a brief on-the-set featurette and a trailer. On a DVD-Rom drive, viewers can access the original press kit.

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