Synopsis: Story of the first Polish citizen to undergo a face transplant.
Malgorzata Szumowska’s MUG is a fascinating, unflinching and dark look at Polish society today. Never exploitative, melodramatic or weepy, Szumowska delivers what is one of the best films of the Berlinale this year, a film that’s as brutal as LOVELESS in its harsh critique of Polish society and one of the most interesting reflections on religion in Europe.
Jacek (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) is a construction worker living in a small town situated on the Polish-German border. He loves metal music and has an optimistic outlook on life. He’s in love with Dagmara (Malgorzata Gorol) and they are about to get married. One day, Jacek falls from the construction site he is working at – one where workers are constructing a giant Jesus statue to rival Rio De Janeiro’s famous attraction) and his face undergoes severe damage and disfiguration. He soon becomes the first person in Poland, and perhaps in Europe, to undergo a successful face transplant operation.
MUG could have been a conventional story with a lot of fireworks and melodrama. Instead, and in the hands of Szumowska, it becomes such an intelligent film that never shies away from its brutal critique and social undertones, but chooses to leave the dramatic conflict for the viewers to conclude. It’s certainly an interesting, and even surprising, approach given how the story garnered sensational coverage in Poland and across Europe. What makes MUG a truly unique experience is three narrative approaches that Szumowska relied on and made the film a subversive and unexpected experience.
The first is the tone – unique and uncompromising, yet bitterly funny. Comedy is tricky in these types of films, especially as they address a tragedy that sends its victims to a point of no return. But Szumowska smartly introduces several comedic scenes and undertones to make its social critique much more relatable, believable and engaging. The comedy here, while harsh and truly dark, elevates the film and turns it into a much more insightful experience that could have instead delved into a meandering, melodramatic territory – something audiences may have come to expect from such films. This is no THEORY OF EVERYTHING or BREATHE, movies seemingly designed to make viewers emotionally wrecked, but it’s a thinker with comedic elements that deepen the film’s premise. Szumowska never exploits the story and turns it into something audiences can quite predict – and the ending shot is a bitterly comedic reminder of her unique take on Jacek’s story.
Another unexpected approach is Szumowska’s decision to focus the story on those surrounding Jacek and not just about his suffering or rehabilitation. In doing that, Szumowska reveals so much about Polish society and expands the story’s scope into something much more engrossing and meaningful. Religion is also a fantastic angle that Szumowska marvelously addresses in the film. Taking the cue from the actual scene where Jacek was one of the construction workers building the statue (which is now indeed a Guinness-world record holder), Szumowska is very interested in depicting how Poland as a nation is still setting its faith in stone, and how such transition is intersecting with Jacek’s new face – his new identity – that most churchgoers are not able to fully digest. This is one of the film’s several fascinating elements that are sure to offer it wider accessibility to audiences beyond Europe.
The makeup department impressively carry out a daunting task of designing the new face for such a vibrant character, and when the makeup is on screen, audiences are truly engaged with a person who does not recognize himself in the mirror and in turn, a nation that’s struggling to perceive, accept or acknowledge its changing identity.
Verdict: A masterful look at Polish society, MUG is a universal film that manages to impress, surprise and deeply engage. One of the best offerings of the Berlinale.