Venice 2021 review: Anatomia (Ola Jankowska)

“Anatomia, without question a masterpiece with a unique signature, heralds the arrival of a talented director far more accomplished than her filmography would suggest.”

One of the most exciting aspects of a film festival is the possibility to discover new talent. Still, it is not very often that one comes across a film and a director that, even in the early stage of a career, display such a distinct voice that it blows you away. Anatomia is such a film and Ola Jankowska is such a director. A film of consistent and incomparable tone (the closest comparison would probably be the work of Angela Schanelec), Anatomia, without question a masterpiece with a unique signature, heralds the arrival of a talented director far more accomplished than her filmography would suggest. With long, static shots, enigmatic in their emotions, Jankowska evokes a sorrow that will pummel you.

Mika (Karolina Kominek) returns to Warsaw after 15 years abroad to visit her father (Andrzej Poniedzielski), who has suffered severe brain injury after a cerebral shunt, placed there after an accident two decades before, stopped functioning. She is warned that his condition has caused massive memory loss, and that he may not recognize her. He does, in a way, but places her in her teens. Mika decides to stay until the shunt is replaced, and goes on a trip down memory lane. An old schoolmate, an old lover, her grandma, her ex-husband, all serve as ways for Mika to relive and come to grips with her own past and her mother’s death, as she is searching for any sort of connection to the time she was still part of a happy family. As she watches old home videos, the difference between past and present starts to blur in a struggle to work through a long-held grief.

It is rare for a debuting director to show such sharp directorial vision and have enough command to put that vision on screen, but Jankowska has complete control over her formalist approach and manages to surprise with imaginative ways to visually represent the underlying ideas of Anatomia. The blending of Mika’s childhood memories and her present, leading to an emotional and cathartic ending, perfectly encapsulates her inner process to finally make peace with a formative moment in her past. Her father’s condition confronts her (again) with the finality of life, sending her back into the abyss of grief over her mother’s death which has rendered her an empty shell, a state Jankowksa and Kominek combine in visuals and performance. Jankowska often films Kominek indirectly, either through glass or through reflections, or perfectly isolates her in the frame as a visual marker of Mika’s isolation in life.

Mika tries to break through that isolation by trying to reconnect with her former life, a happier life. But all efforts to connect fail. The former classmate meets her out of courtesy, and her former lover almost breaks through Mika’s wall only to realize that their connection lies behind them. Mika’s memories of the past clearly are not congruent with those of others, which leads to the question of what impression we really make on others, and how fleeting our presence in their lives can be. Jankowska breathtakingly visualizes this in interspersed scenes where she films Kominek with a heat camera, registering her body, but also the ‘stains’ of heat she leaves behind on a couch or a bed. With time, these stains fade, as do other people’s memories of us.

Mika’s state of mind is even reflected in her environment, as Warsaw is shown in its ugliest concrete-and-glass version. And even here the connections of fonder memories are made, with two small references to pre-war times: Mika overhearing an old man’s phone conversation about the bombing of Warsaw, and an old black-and-white photo on a cabinet of her great-grandmother in Warsaw before the war. The city was devastated during the war, an event it is still working through, another mirror image of Mika’s story.

Jankowska’s keen talent makes all these moments fit together perfectly through long, slow, often silent takes that have a deep sense of the sadness and weariness of life washing over them. The mixing of memory and reality rattles the viewer, wrongfoots them, then slowly becomes comfortable and in the end emotional. This is the moment when Kominek’s performance soars, as suddenly all withheld grief and pain come bursting out in a wordless scene that captures the loving bond between a mother and her child. Anatomia is a film that makes us think about who we are to others, about what remains of our past and how much that defines our present, and about how memories are never really shared but always personal. It is an extraordinary film, wholly unique and singular in style, from a first-time director who crafted a harrowing masterpiece of sorrow that creates distance to get to an emotional core.