The Big Animal
review by Gregory Avery, 26 March 2004

In The Big Animal, Zygmunt Sawicki (played by Jerzy Stuhr), an older gentleman with a broad face and mustache, walks through town, wrapped in a trenchcoat, before going to his job as a bank clerk, holding a tether that is attached to a large, magnificent two-humped camel, the camel walking alongside Zygmunt with a quiet grace and majesty that either rubs off on Zygmunt or mirrors that of the gentle man. Zygmunt's wife, Marysia (Anna Dymna), is a little more leery when the creature turns up at their home in a small Polish town, but, after a while, by her own admission, she finds she gets used to having it around. Concerned about the weather, she sews a patchwork shawl for it, which fits over both the animal's humps neatly; the schoolchildren she teaches engage in trying to find a name for it. Zygmunt even decides to build a shelter for it -- looking at photos of mosques, he designs it so that it will resemble something it might feel more at "home" with. Most marvelously, when Zygmunt plays the clarinet, the animal happily "harumphs" in response to the music.

The film was made from a screenplay written by Krzysztof Kieslowski that was discovered after his death, from a heart attack, in 1996, and, as with the best of the films Kieslowski directed, the story ends up going far beyond the obvious. Jerzy Stuhr, who also directed The Big Animal, acted opposite Zbigniew Zamachowski in the last episode of The Decalogue, about a pair of brothers who try to figure out what to do with a stamp collection left by their late father. (Stuhr also appeared in a supporting role in White, the second of the Three Colors films.) Aided by  beautiful black-and-white photography  by the cinematographer Pawel Edelman, Stuhr's direction and acting both show a deep sympathy and understanding of the material. The camel, seemingly abandoned by a traveling circus, is something miraculous that drops into some people's lives, and they respond to it for what's wonderful about it. Zygmunt is proud to show it around, but feels deeply uncomfortable about exploiting it -- it seems to him simply "immoral" -- a response that leaves some people, who readily see how they could use such a beast for their own personal gain, as incomprehensible. Others just don't want it about -- one official explanation being that it creates "unwanted sensation" -- but they're all too happy to be friendly towards Zygmunt when the animal's not around.

In the end, the picture becomes something more than just a story about what happens when the miraculous occurs in everyday life, and how it ends up profoundly coloring both Zygmunt and Marysia's existence -- they visit the Warsaw Zoo, and, lingering before the enclosure for camels (3, in fact), the animals approach the couple and lean down to gently come close to their faces, as if both recognizing a quality in these two beings and paying homage to it. Zygmunt and Marysia's response is remarkable. The moment is simply, and breathtakingly, beautiful.

Directed by:
Jerzy Stuhr

Starring:
Jerzy Stuhr
Anna Dymna

Written by:
Krzysztof Kieslowski

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.

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