In some ways it may come as a surprise to discover that a film as bizarre as The Last Family (Ostatnia Rodzina) is based firmly on reality, detailing the life of the internationally acclaimed Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski. On the other hand, perhaps the absurdity of it all strikes a bit too close to home to be anything other than real life, a realisation that induces a nagging feeling throughout the film. Although this is director Jan Matuszynski’s first foray into narrative screenplay, the award-winning documentarian seems to have made a seamless transition.
Perhaps this is because he’s stuck to what he does best, adopting a documentary-style, fly-on-the-wall approach, really drawing you in to the toxic mix of love, depression, neurosis, anxiety, and death, all fomented in a pressure-cooker of cramped pre-fabricated socialist housing. Indeed, the concept and script is based on extensive videotapes and recordings made by Beksinski himself, as he documented daily life in his apartment. Consequently, the film’s dripping with authenticity and a pungent sense of locale, with the grim bleakness of 1970s and 80s Communist Poland adding an extra layer of desperation to the personal issues affecting the eponymous Family. But the themes raised by Ostatnia Rodzina are nonetheless universally recognisable and relatable to.
Beksinski (Andrzej Seweryn) is a fundamentally balanced, and compassionate man in spite of his pathological fear of spiders and chillingly disturbing artwork, for which he has an undeniably rare talent. A devoted family man, he lives and works on the 18th floor of an apartment block in one of Warsaw’s sprawling brutalist postwar housing estates, along with his wife Zofia (Aleksandra Konieczna) and both of their ageing mothers. However, the film’s catalyst is Beksinski’s son Tomasz, portrayed masterfully by David Ogrodnik, who lives in similarly dreary accommodation nearby. Tomasz is an intelligent but neurotic young man who suffers from erratic mood swings, violent outbursts, depression, and suicidal tendencies.
Fundamentally misanthropic and unambitious, Tomasz struggles to hold down a stable life, which impacts heavily on his extended family. However, he really comes to life when immersing himself in his great passion for music and film, through which he reveals himself to be a likeable and complex character. As the plot develops, the tumultuous and conflicted relationship between Tomasz and the viewer closely mirrors that between him and his family, and the social fabric holding them together comes under increasing strain.
In every respect, The Last Family is an engrossing and wonderfully executed piece of cinema, reflecting life in its black comedy, tedium, stress, and uncertainty. The dialogue and action seem to creep along at a snail’s pace, but within moments years have passed. Agony and struggle is punctuated by elation and beauty, and then all of a sudden it’s over.
The Last Family (Ostatnia Rodzina) was screened as part of KINOTEKA, the 15th Polish Film Festival in London, running from 17 March till 5 April 2017.