Directed by Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik
Written by Agnieszka Holland and Olga Tokarczuk
We were about halfway through Spoor when my husband remarked, “this movie is right up your alley, isn’t it?” This was shortly after the main character, an animal-rights activist/English teacher/retired engineer, is invited to a costume party hosted by mushroom foragers. It’s high summer, and she’s up late sitting in front of campfire, sharing a joint with her neighbor—he’s the one invites her to the party—and a traveling entomologist who specializes in the study of insects who feast on the dead. Both men are a little in love with her. She’s in her sixties, with wild gray hair. When she’s invited to the forager’s costume party her reply is, “I have a wolf costume.” Life goals!
Spoor centers on Jamina Duszejiko, a one-woman crusader against the cruelties of poaching and hunting, which she witnesses on the land surrounding her country home. When her beloved dogs go missing, she suspects they have fallen victim to poachers, too, and she wages war against local hunters, reporting their illegal activities to the police. Meanwhile, a number of hunters begin to turn up dead. Duszejiko’s far-out theory is that they are revenge killings by the animals themselves. She’s regarded by a crank by many in town, especially the police, who find her diatribes on behalf of animals to be childishly simplistic. But she has allies, too, and one of the pleasures of this movie is watching her and her fellow eccentrics band together as the murder mystery unfolds.
But the real joy of the movie is Duszejiko herself, who is just a lot more interesting than most people. She’s a retired civil engineer who has built bridges all over the world and learned English on the job. Now she teaches English to stay busy, and in a pinch she can help with a William Blake translation. She’s also an astrology expert, and she has a mystical gift that allows her to see into people’s pasts. Her character is what drives the movie’s many modes, which is sometimes a crime thriller, sometimes a black comedy, sometimes a reverie on the beauty of nature, and sometimes a work of magical realism. I noticed that negative reviews of Spoor cited the changing moods as problematic, but for me it was what made the movie work. I also appreciated the overt political messaging, especially when Duszejiko explicitly questions the way the Catholic Church, and Christianity in general, puts humanity above everything else, allowing for humans to abuse and mistreat animals and other living things. It seemed to be in a conversation with films like First Reformed and Woman at War, which also revolve around the actions of lone environmental crusaders. But it’s a funnier movie than you might expect, and at its heart is a utopian vision about how people might learn to live with each other and on the planet in community.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik, Spoor is adapted from Nobel Prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. It premiered in Europe in 2017 to acclaim, winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was also Poland’s entry for the 2017 Oscars. I don’t know why it took so long to come the US but it was finally distributed in January via VOD streaming platforms earlier this year. I didn’t hear about it until Criterion selected it for its June programming. In the meantime, Holland directed two more films, Mr. Jones, which premiered on VOD last summer, and Charlatan, which has yet to find a U.S. distributor. Holland is in her seventies, with a long career in cinema that I’ve come to belatedly—though she’s someone whose work I have enjoyed without realizing it. She was a screenwriting collaborator on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s iconic Three Colors trilogy, one of my first introductions to European cinema, and I’ve certainly seen her television work on shows like House of Cards, Treme, and The Wire. Her IMDB page sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole, and now I’m eager to dig into her backlog.