The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
From the short story “Wielbłąd” by Kazimierz Orłos, Duże zwierzę was adapted in the 1970s by Krzysztof Kieślowski, who did not film it in Communist Poland presumably for political reasons. Following Kieślowski’s death in 1996, Jerzy Stuhr filmed it (rightly) in black-and-white—Pawel Edelman cinematographed—and cast himself in the lead role of a small-town bank clerk who adopts an orphaned double-humped camel that an itinerant circus has abandoned. Zygmunt and Marysia, childless, grow to love the animal, which endearingly sings along when Zygmunt plays the clarinet. Zygmunt evidences pride when he walks his pet; the animal suggests freedom (albeit on a leash), individualism, a spark of warm poetry amidst a prosaic existence. However, neighbors, consumed by fear, their own unhappiness and petty jealousy, turn on the couple and on their camel. The local bureaucracy officially declares the “culturally foreign” creature “useless and unnecessary,” as though living beauty and elegance, because of the joy these engender, do not constitute a form of utility. “Indignant residents” demand “law and order”; Zygmunt is advised to have the animal institutionalized and “put to work.” He should have been content, he is told, with “normal human animals.” Devastating: the scene where the camel no longer pipes in when Zygmunt plays the clarinet.
Stupendously funny (reaction shots of the camel, often while munching, figure prominently here), Stuhr’s satirical comedy assumes a darker complexion as the couple are increasingly harassed, are robbed of their pet (which is likely liquidated) and left bereft. A boy’s hidden sculpted camel suggests his secret appetite for the political freedom that is lying in wait. The film ends tremendously, with Zygmunt and Marysia affectionately interacting with three camels.
Indeed, the entire film, with its brilliant visual humor followed by growing melancholy, is wonderful and sharp.
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