Agnieszka Holland is back on the festival circuit, though she has long since moved away from the Holocaust subjects for which they know her, doing series TV and versions of The Secret Garden (1993) and Washington Square (1997) - more familiar when it was adapted as The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949).
On the new film Spoor she shares director credit with her daughter Kasia Adamik. It sets its tone immediately with striking shots of deer antlers moving among the long grass at dawn already suggesting nature as a mystic experience which is the way grey haired lead Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka’s character sees it. Like her neighbors she lives, with her adored dogs as companions, in an isolated home in the woods. She chats to the wild boar that wanders into her yard and abuses a neighbor whose wire snares are a cruel death for the forest deer caught looking round at the audience. When Mandat-Grabka takes a lover it is naturally an entomologist whose preoccupation is with the insects in the undergrowth here - nice shot of blue beetles mating.
Her uneasy appointment as local school English teacher is put at risk when she takes her charges on an expedition into the dark trees looking for her missing pets. The local priest, who is a cultural supporter of hunting, and the Polilja station cop who joins the pack are reduced to close-ups of lips framing platitudes about animals having no importance, no souls.
The only people who are exempt from the lead and the film’s assessment as crude intruders into this bucolic environment are the scrubbed up juveniles, an expelled city I.T. technician and the girl sex slave of the local bogus playboy club. When bodies start turning up in the woods they are the ones who become the suspects.
The first half of the film is evocative and gripping. with the intriguing wild life straying through the foliage and seen as targets by the hunt-and-drink lot who seem to be violating the natural order, with the animal heads strewn about their houses, paralleling the grotesque costumes of their seasonal celebration.
When the conventions of the whodunnit assert themselves the film becomes less than it looked like it was going to be. It’s still a well-crafted and played entertainment but it’s also a disappointment. The cast and technicians are regulars in Slavonic movies and the subdued colour palette recalls the bad old days of Commie colour Agfa film processed locally.