Poland, 2016 72 minutes
Ola is 14-years-old and the head of her family. She struggles with superhuman tasks including taking care of Nikodem her autistic brother who lives in his own world. She also keeps an eye on their alcoholic father who loves them, but is not skilled at handling real life. Ola’s biggest wish is for her mother to rejoin the family. Her mother, however, is now living with another man and has his baby. The upcoming communion of Nikodem–an important rite of passage in a highly devout Catholic country such as Poland–seems to be the perfect opportunity to bring everyone together and create a basis for her return.
Anna Zamecka’s debut documentary won many awards, including the European Film Award for Best Documentary and the Critics Week Award at Locarno, where the film had its world premiere. Shot in only 35 days over the course of a year, this highly cinematic coming-of-age story has atmosphere and poetry. Zamecka told Filmmaker Magazine in an interview that Ola’s situation resonates with her own childhood, and the film has a deeply personal feel.
«Shot in only 35 days over the course of a year, this highly cinematic coming of age story has atmosphere and poetry.»
The camera follows Ola and Nikodem’s daily life in their tiny apartment an hour’s drive outside of Warsaw. Their apartment is too small and their resources scarce, but nothing is as troubling as the lack of a central adult to coordinate the family life. Ola does her best and seems to handle things well without realising that she handles too much.
The cinematic language of Communion is reminiscent of independent European cinema, capturing beauty without romanticizing Ola’s struggle. The story is brought forward with empathy instead of judgment even though society’s failure to support these children is evident in many ways. The lack of blame, Ola’s admirable ability to perform her role and the intimacy of the story, these elements make the film timeless reaching way beyond the limits of its narrative. Communion is not a painful portrait of Ola’s struggles in a dysfunctional world but an exploration of her world, with its joys and shortcomings.
A Sister’s Love
To Nikodem, Ola is not only a sister, but also his only caretaker. She loves him, threatens him and takes care of him at the same time, and even though she feels burdened and overwhelmed she doesn’t give up on him. Nikodem has a form of autism and in all possible contexts he seems to be the odd one out. Yet everyone in the film pretends he’s not, treating him like a kid that is a bit different, but not that much different.
«The cinematic language of Communion is reminiscent of independent European cinema, capturing beauty without romanticizing Ola’s struggle.»
It is unclear whether the way people behave around Nikodem is out of indifference or kindness. There are glimpses of absurdity and humour in the scenes in which Nikodem’s behaviour is strange, but everyone acts like nothing odd is happening. He goes through life without people truly understanding his experiences, and in urgent need of acknowledgement and help. Yet everyone is busy playing a game of pretend as if pretending long enough will fix everything.
Nikodem’s compulsive behaviour and the thoughts he cannot filter feel refreshing, as if he is calling the others out on their game of pretend. He is supposed to read the Bible and become a respectable member of the church with all its ceremony and high ideals. In reality, the church is failing to acknowledge and respect the fact that this boy that stands before it is different, a fact that should not make him an outsider, but that should also not be ignored. The upcoming communion is Nikodem’s second attempt to go through this rite of passage–years earlier a priest refused to give him this important Catholic sacrament.
«Ola and Nikodem fracture the image of the ideal Catholic society, one filled with happy, virtuous families and God.»
The strict church environment and Nikodem seem to belong to two different worlds. In one scene Nikodem sits with a priest and the priest asks him to make a list of the most important sins. Nikodem does not agree that gluttony is a sin; he says for him it’s a virtue. He says it so innocently and joyfully that the moment becomes amusing and endearing. Nikodem defies the authority of the priest who fails to acknowledge that this young boy is different; he would like him to behave just like others. There is a sharp contrast between how genuine and innocent Nikodem is and the communion ceremony, which recognises that everyone is a sinner.
Ola and Nikodem fracture the image of the ideal Catholic society, one filled with happy, virtuous families and God. Ola and Nikodem’s reality doesn’t fit that ideal, but they both try to keep afloat. Nikodem’s preparation for communion means doing what is seen as normal in that society. Their lives are an illustration of how the opposite of “normal” is not “abnormal,” but simply “different” and maybe sometimes “difficult,” and that you have to keep going even when you’re too young to do so.