Locarno 2021 review: Bukolika (Karol Pałka)

In 1975 Albert and David Maysles, a pair of esteemed directors who specialized in non-fiction filmmaking, made one of the most revolutionary documentaries of its time. Grey Gardens gave audiences access into the lives of “Big” Edie Beale and her daughter “Little” Edie, members of the Kennedy dynasty, as they wasted away in their decrepit upstate New York mansion. Karol Pałka seems to have taken a cue from them in the creation of Bukolika, his wildly ambitious journey into the Polish heartland as filtered through the perspective of two women, Danusia and Basia, a mother and daughter who reside in isolation from the rest of the world. A daring, shattering documentary about life in the wilderness that proves how film is often in dialogue with earlier works, Bukolika is something of a revelation, a quiet but impactful character study extracted directly from reality, which often proves to be far more captivating than any fictional construction. This is the rare kind of documentary that is less focused on getting to a coherent point, and more about reflecting the experiences of a pair of lives in motion through episodic interactions. The film is a staggering testimony, not only to the resilience of these women, but to the story of a nearly anonymous subset of the population that live their lives in relative obscurity, emerging from their self-imposed sanctuaries only when necessary, which is the central concept that seems to have inspired this film.

The film revolves around two people living happily on the fringes of society, making a life for themselves amongst farm animals and wide-open spaces. For some this life may not be ideal; from the perspective of this mother and daughter their isolation is their salvation, since they can be free from the influences of the outside world, only venturing beyond the farm to sing their devotions at church or to visit the nearest town when necessary. A film like Bukolika is going to attempt to justify the decisions of its subjects in order to help the audience understand their decisions – but instead of an overwrought manifesto against modern life, the documentary is a carefully constructed series of moments in the lives of Danusia and Basia, who reside in nothing but pastoral bliss. Their lives are not particularly easy but they also are not struggling, acknowledging the harsh conditions but still finding a way to be content with their existence. Both of them, particularly the older of the pair, are fueled by stories to pass the time – religious belief intermingles with ancient folktales that guide the thoughts of these women, even if only momentarily. The narration, in which Danusia frequently makes mention of being haunted by imps and other mythical creatures, creates a stark contrast with the arid realism of the images, which the director perfectly encapsulates throughout his earnest portrayal of these women.

At only 70 minutes, Bukolika is a remarkably economical film, making it clear from the start that no time will be wasted in portraying the lives of Danusia and Basia. Putting aside the interesting subject matter, this is a remarkable piece of filmmaking – taking place over a few seasons in the lives of the two central individuals, the film employs some of the most stunning techniques in representing both the change of the seasons, and the progress of time. The images are bleak and unforgettable, carrying a sense of quiet enchantment even when they are at their most profoundly unsettling. The cinematography itself is worth the viewer’s time, with each moment gorgeously filmed, every aspect of the subjects’ lives stunningly captured in vivid detail. On the surface this would appear to be done as a way of expressing the lives of these women artistically – but as we move further into the epicentre of their world and come to know their routine, we see that Pałka’s intentions were to paint a distinct portrait through a few unexpectedly profound directorial choices. The growing sense of catharsis occurs alongside the striking imagery, which may appear simple at a cursory glance but grows to be quite tense, building to a stunning crescendo that could be one of the most unforgettable endings in recent years. The image of a lonely rural woman dancing to a small campfire in the dead of night – is it a ritual or a celebration, or perhaps a blend of both?

This all converges in the realization that Pałka was aiming to force us to step back and embrace the quiet solitude of a life detached from the bustling urban world. Such a life is almost entirely foreign to many viewers who may struggle to put themselves in the place of these subjects, who actively embrace such an existence. Bukolika is a film in which every moment is crafted to reflect the most earnest simplicity of life, working as a beautiful and revealing portrait of a pair of outsiders, showing the reality these women face. Their lives as jagged and weathered as the well-worn journals that we frequently see throughout the film, which function as the documentation of their days, holding their scattered thoughts and telling their stories. Danusia and Basia are two people living off the earth, not only for survival but as a way of providing spiritual and emotional enrichment, a life that may not be defined by luxury but remains the only one they are interested in living. The film says so much, despite the frequent stretches of absolute silence, which tend to reveal even more about these women through their intimacy. Bukolika may appear impenetrable and seemingly require a working knowledge of Polish culture to fully understand the cultural references, but as it progresses, the mysteries at the heart of the film begin to unravel and reveal as much about contemporary society as about the subjects, in a hauntingly beautiful celebration of life on the outskirts of society.

Bukolika (Karol Pałka)