Screens at CIFF: 10/14 & 10/16 & 10/18
World premiere: 5 August, 2011, Poland

When it works, and it does so more often than not, Rafael Lewandowski's The Mole is a well-considered, quietly ambivalent film about the scars of living in a democratic country where totalitarianism happened recently enough that not-so-old people can still remember the time that the man buying eggs in the grocery store turned his neighbor in to the Soviets. When it does not work, which is often enough that the film as a whole feels like it's holding your hand more often than is actually the case; the frustratingly neat & tidy ending, at any rate, does not help with this impression.

At any rate, The Mole's study of Poland in the early '80s vs. Poland now adopts a new perspective on this faintly well-worn subject matter: it's not told via the recollections of a person who was there, but through a youngish man who was not quite yet born at the time of the 1981 event that drives the bulk of the conflict. Pawel Kowal (Borys Szyc) and his wife and child live with his father, Zygmunt (Marian Dziedziel), and the two men work together selling rags. Not a lucrative business, one might think, but they seem to do well enough for themselves that the family can live decently, while Ewa (Magdalena Czerwinska), Pawel's wife, is in graduate school.

Things get screwy when rumors start to rumble along that Zygmunt was at one point a Soviet spy in the local mining union, and that even worse, he had in that capacity performed an instrumental role in inciting a riot that resulted in a whole lot of dead Poles and a much reduced stock of militant revolutionaries for the Russians to deal with. These rumors grow as rumors do until the whole town has turned on Zygmunt, though Pawel of course refuses to turn on his father, even after Zygmunt refuses to return from a trip into France, a rather awkward fact to deal with when one is trying to convince everybody that he is completely innocent and has nothing to hide.

The Mole is as much about a generational conflict as it is about the political history of Poland; between Pawel and the people old enough to remember that riot and the terrible aftermath. For the young man, it's literally a lifetime away; his idea of the modern Poland (revealed in a particularly angry confrontation with his uncle, who is paranoiacally convinced that "the Reds" are deliberately railroading Zygmunt) does not have much room for re-fighting ideological battles of thirty years ago. It's a different approach to material that has been thoroughly strip-mined by Central and Eastern European filmmakers since the fall of the Soviet Union (and even this is not by any stretch of the imagination a wildly new way of approaching this topic, but it is certainly a rarer and subtler way of looking at the topic), and Lewandowski's handling of the conflict is smart and restrained, particularly in the latter parts of the film, where Pawel must deal not with the rabid hatred of the rest of his community, but also with his own doubts to his father's innocence: Szyc's unshowy performance moves through a great many emotional registers in a fairly small amount of time, and Lewandowski makes excellent use of the actor's subtlety to do a whole lot more showing in The Mole than telling.

And for that reason, it's annoying when the film decides to reward the audience for the hard work of having to observe and make connections for ourselves with a lumpen, obvious ending that opens up into full-on thriller territory - and I am fine, by the way, with that. Given that this is a movie, it's not surprising that SPOILER Zygmunt turns to out to be just exactly the mole he was accused of being, and Pawel's mission to clear his name makes sense and is, legitimately thrilling. But the last five minutes or maybe slightly more are just trash: completely upending the moral universe the film has built up so slyly and patiently, and not even doing it to raise some moral question; not even, apparently, realising that it raises that question.

That, on top of the film's semi-frequent drift into haranguing us with "You don't understand Poland today!"/"You don't understand history" arguments that literalise the themes in an entirely unwelcome fashion, leave The Mole working worse, in sum, than it does in aggregate. So many of the scenes have such a bite to them - an icy, low-key fight between Pawel and Ewa, or a nationalistic meeting of expatriate Poles that is patriotic and vaguely condescending in the same breath - that I could easily remember only the shorter version of the movie that is largely without broken patches; and instead, I have the distinct sense that the movie is far shallower than those individual moments should allow for. It's a noble near-miss, then, The Mole is, and while it's a thoughtful and at times genuinely exciting way to spend two hours, it's certainly not a lasting, massively important work of cinema.