Life Must Go On, a new film directed by Maciej Migas and starring Tomasz Kot, Janusz Chabior, and Jacek Braciak, tells the story of Bartek, a recovering alcoholic diagnosed with incurable lung cancer and given three months to live. In one particular scene near the end of the film Bartek, spotlit against a dark background. speaks to the studio audience at the season finale of ‘Dancing with the Stars’, the television show on which he’s warm-up man. Imploring them not to forget the losers – ‘They did fight to the end; think of them fondly’ – he gives a flourish of the hand and with a dramatic change of voice announces the next dance, ‘Samba!’ – the show must go on. The moment almost perfectly encapsulates his story. Like Bartek’s sudden shift in tone, the film oscillates between poignancy and light-heartedness. Not overly dramatic, it provides a balanced consideration of whether or not a man can make amends and redeem his past.
We first encounter Bartek when his career as an actor is falling apart due to alcoholism. Fast-forwarding twenty years to an informal AA meeting, we see him confess to drinking half a litre of vodka 365 days a year for 20 years: roughly 3,650 litres. With this in mind, we watch as he navigates his multiple jobs (selling products in a mall, teaching high school drama, and his warm-up work on ‘Dancing With The Stars’.) His life’s clearly lonely and a shadow of what it once was, making it all the more heart-breaking when his doctor informs him of his illness. Yet this sets Bartek into motion, as he takes the advice of a friend to ‘rewrite the script from the Almighty’ and reassess his life.
Throughout the film we watch as Bartek tries to rebuild his relationships with his ex-wife Barbara, daughter Monika, and former co-star – while simultaneously deteriorating from his illness and the chemo. During this journey, the years skipped over between the first and second scenes of the film become clear. Through photographs and home videos, Bartek tries to remember and rebuild the twenty years he claims to have forgotten entirely. The smiling photographed faces of his wife and daughter are then sharply contrasted with reality when, in his encounters with them, they both choose to shut him out completely.
Despite Bartek’s clearly violent and abusive past – which we can only guess at from the anger of his ex-wife and daughter – he’s a highly likeable character. His past seems impossibly hard to square with the thoughtful character we see on the screen – taking care of his drunk neighbor, fishing with his best friend, and driving all the way to Hungary to try to win back his daughter’s trust. Gentle and kind, he’s someone you want to root for as an audience-member, precisely because he fights right to the end. Despite having created his own situation, he appears to be the underdog – a kind and thoughtful one – and who doesn’t root for that?
Though at times the film feels a little clichéd, the story’s well-crafted. Certain moments – like Bartek and his doctor discussing his lung cancer while leaning out of the window to smoke cigarettes – are almost poetic in their humor and irony. The cinematography too is beautifully done and adds an artistic, thoughtful element to the action.
While at the beginning of the film – and certainly at other moments – Bartek’s life seems hopeless, the story manages to end on an optimistic note. He begins to rebuild his acting career and – realizing his errors – offers his daughter’s alcoholic boyfriend advice about his future. It may not answer the question of whether it’s possible for a man to fix all his life-mistakes in just three months, but it does suggest it isn’t a fruitless task. Life Must Go On manages to tell a tragic story with both gravity and humour, ultimately showing how one man can reassess and atone for his past – even when he seems doomed to fail in the attempt.
Life Must Go On (Migas, 2015) screened as part of the 14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival (7 – 21 April 2016).