A biting slice of social realism, Communion signals Polish director Anna Zamecka, who makes a stunning debut with this documentary, as a powerful talent to watch.
Communion is an intimate, immersive documentary that Zamecka has shot and structured like a feature. It opens right in the middle of a small moment — a boy struggling to put on his belt — and we’re pulled immediately into the family dynamics. It’s impossible not to become engrossed in this fractured family headed by 14 year-old Ola Kaczanowski who does everything from clean the bleak, two-room apartment to tutor her 13-year-old autistic brother Nikodem to berate her hapless father for spending time in the pub.
Zamecka centers her film on Ola as she rigorously prepares the unruly but sweet-tempered Nikodem for his Holy Communion, a religious rite important to the Kaczanowski family and to their Polish community at large. In one scene, Ola uses slices of banana as a substitute for the host on her brother’s tongue. We soon learn the reason for Ola’s eagerness that Nikodem be allowed to participate in the ceremony and it gives potent symbolism to the idea of “communion.” Ola and Nikodem’s estranged mother, who now has a third child and is living with an abusive man, is scheduled to attend the event. Ola expectantly sees this as a chance for her family to reunite.
Ola is part of a tradition of children in neo-realist cinema who are forced to shoulder responsibilities when parents are ineffectual or missing, literally or figuratively. Besides the recent “Capernaum,” I was also reminded of director Edet Belzberg’s 2001 documentary Children Underground, about runaway kids on the streets of Romania which included a smart and scrappy girl who takes care of her younger brother.
Ola is unaffected, unfiltered and often angry but also optimistic even in the face of her dire circumstances which of course is what makes her so endearing and so heartbreaking.