First-time Polish director Anna Zamecka’s documentary Communion has a deceptively simple premise: a Polish teenager named Ola tends to her autistic brother Nikodem and Marek, her oft-drunk father, in the days leading to and following Nikodem’s First Communion. The truth of the matter is, however, that Communion is so much more than the sum of its parts. Intimate in every sense of the word, Zamecka’s work gives insight into the universal struggle of the working class family constantly on the cusp of rupture.
The documentary starts with a scene of Nikodem trying several times, unsuccessfully, to put on his belt, harshly reprimanding himself with each failed attempt. In a tragically comedic moment, Nikodem’s character is established with grace. Nikodem exists in the same world as the rest of the family, but is simultaneously independent of its reality. An intelligent, but socially impaired due to his autism, Nikodem establishes a unique sense of comedy in what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly depressive peek into a shattered family’s life. Communion’s greatest potential is realized when the boy’s lightheartedness collides with the tragic maturity of Ola, his 14 year old sister, the true protagonist in the documentary.
Ola is, in a sense, the dark counterbalance to Nikodem’s light comedy. A 14 year old whose eyes show the strain of years beyond, Ola is forced to be the head of her dysfunctional household after her mother, Magda leaves the home. Singularly focused on reuniting the family, Ola strives desperately to prepare Nikodem for his First Communion. In her mind, the event is the only thing that might bring Magda back to the house. This desperation is most clearly shown in the scenes where Ola tries desperately to teach Nikodem the intricacies of the Catholic faith in preparation for his pre-communion oral test with a priest. Zamecka manages to capture these exchanges with masterful duality between Ola’s increasingly fractured questioning and Nikodem’s often nonsensical responses. This culminates in the surprisingly suspenseful test scene, in which Nikodem nails every question the priest has, and with such charisma that it’s impossible not to smile as he quips with the priest and relief washes over Ola.
None of these scenes would have any meaning, however, without the masterful and incredibly deliberate hand of Anna Zamecka. It is near impossible to believe that a first time director is able to capture such vibrant characters so intimately without even a hint of amateurism. The photography itself is stunningly beautiful for a documentary, with a muted color palette that aligns itself perfectly with the atmosphere of constant struggle. Delicately placed long takes of otherwise mundane objects, such as the family flat’s doorway, take on a beautiful and intensely meaningful significance under Zamecka’s direction. The limited space of the family’s apartment is creatively transformed into an opportunity to further the sense of intimacy with the characters. Most important, however, is Anna Zamecka’s clear sense of love for these characters that makes the otherwise uneventful film Communion not only tolerable, but wonderful.