KVIFF 2018: Ewa Bukowska's '53 Wars' is Intimate & Intense Hysteria
by Alex Billington
July 3, 2018
War is good for absolutely nothing, right? But what if your significant other is a war correspondent, whose job it is to go to these dangerous places and report the truth? That's what this film is about - 53 Wars, the feature directorial debut of Polish actress Ewa Bukowska. Bukowska adapts an autobiographical novel by Grażyna Jagielska, telling the story of a Polish woman (played by Magdalena Popławska) whose husband is a war correspondent, spending most of each year away on assignment. The story focuses on Anka, who slowly becomes more and more hysterical and paranoid, experiencing the weight of war herself through her own anxiety and concern over the safety of her husband. This film is a remarkably intense, mature, complex portrait of a woman who goes through hell out of a love for her husband and loses her mind in the process.
There's quite a bit about 53 Wars to admire and analyze, and I believe it deserves an international audience. First, it tells a story of a complex woman, someone who is a loving wife & mother, but also someone with emotions who has her own breakdowns and struggles. It's a very strong film lead by a superb performance from Magdalena Popławska as Anka. The film also has a fractured narrative, jumping around in time, giving us various glimpses of their life together. We get to see some of the early moments when they first meet, but it doesn't spend too long trying to explain how they fell in love because that's inherent already. It also plays with the feelings of hysteria, drifting into moments where she freaks out. One particular scene in the second half gave me chills in the way it's visualized perfectly - you feel everything at that moment just as she does.
Director Ewa Bukowska spends most of the time pulling the audience into the mind of Anka, trying to make us feel how intense and horrifying it is to be in this situation. She's not there with him, but she's feeling all the horror and darkness of war anyway. This is achieved in various ways - with an incredible, eclectic score by Natalia Fiedorczuk; with shocking, visceral sound design; with melancholic, dark cinematography by Tomasz Naumiuk: and with the fractured narrative itself. All of this develops further as she gets more and more hysterical throughout the film. The title is a reference to the fact that she has "experienced" a total of 53 wars, or rather, her husband has covered 53 wars and she has been with him throughout all this time. Even though the film jumps around in time, it builds as it progresses. She becomes someone else entirely.
The biggest issue with this film is that it totally goes off the rails by the end. It's like a runaway train, getting faster and faster as it speeds uncontrollably down a hill. As it starts to speed up, everything begins shaking more and more violently. The film has this feeling. But by the end, instead of somehow slowing down and smoothly gliding the audience safely into the station, the film gets so crazy it derails entirely. She goes nuts, and so does the film, losing its focus. We're taken to a whole different place, and there's a batch of scenes at the end that just don't fit with the rest of it. This is a bit unfortunate because the rest of the film is so strong but it's hard to slow down a train that has built up so much momentum and is destined to crash. Maybe that's the moral of the story. Maybe it's too much. No one can take on this much and make it out unharmed.
Alex's Karlovy Vary 2018 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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