Film Review: Demon

Skillfully realized story of a dybbuk, a diabolical spirit from Jewish folklore who addresses wrongdoings.
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Marcin Wrona’s Demon begins with a backhoe moving swiftly through the narrow streets of a deserted Polish town, anachronistic and eerily animate. An abrupt cut to a ferry introduces the film’s protagonist, Python (Itay Tiran), who we later learn is on his way to meet his future father-in-law, Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski), and his bride-to-be, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). He and Zaneta are to be married on her home island that weekend. During the brief crossing, along a beachfront, Python sees a uniformed man forcing a hysterical woman out of the water. Everything about these title and opening scenes is portentous, as is Krzysztof Penderecki’s pensive score.

Once on the island, Python is immediately reminded of his status as an outsider when Zygmunt insists on speaking to him in English. Apparently, Python works abroad as an architect, and has conversed with Zaneta mostly through Skype. Her brother Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt) introduced them. The couple are to live on a property Zaneta inherited from her grandfather, although the house and grounds have been neglected. Because the wedding is imminent, Jasny and Python begin planning renovations, and someone suggests a swimming pool. Soon, the yellow backhoe appears.

Filmed on location in Bochnia, a town near Krakow, in an abandoned house on a real island, Demon at first feels and looks like a horror movie—and it is, but Wrona’s underlying themes of unresolved grief and loss, as well as of individual and collective memories forcibly erased, provide a complicated backstory. Whatever has been forgotten in this island community resides in Zaneta’s house, and on the land that surrounds it. Using no special effects, Wrona (who committed suicide earlier this year) and his excellent cinematographer, Pawel Flis, tease out of the movie’s simple plot the undeniable existence of evil. When Python digs up human remains, he also unleashes the dybbuk or ghost, Hana (Maria Dębska), who has been waiting for the lover she was once promised.

Long Polish wedding receptions are legend, and this one sometimes appears to take place in real time. At first, Demon’s plot twists keep the story moving, but once Hana manifests herself, it slows to a crawl, in part because there is only Python’s destiny to be realized. As the outsider, his end is never in question. Hana is Jewish, and only the old professor (Wlodzimierz Press) who once loved her remembers her as the beautiful young woman she once was; Hana’s wartime affection for a Polish man apparently spelled her fate. In the course of the film, Wrona accomplishes a change of point-of-view that is rather astonishing, and a testament to his skillful direction. The story becomes Zaneta’s, rather than Python’s, and yet another tale, along with Hana’s, of a woman wronged by men, namely her father and brother.

Demon might be read as a tale about the evils of patriarchy, of the eradication from collective memory of the crimes committed against women, and anyone who is “other,” including the Jews of Poland. It is the third in a trilogy that began with Wrona’s My Flesh and Blood (2009) and The Christening (2010). Loosely based on a play called The Clinging, Demon’s screenplay is at its best when dealing with the ripple effects of the suppression of memory; minor characters in the film, even stock characters such as the emotionally detached priest and the alcoholic doctor who attend the reception, inhabit long-forgotten aspects of their personalities, to poignant as well as wryly humorous effects.

The insight of the director, who co-wrote the film with Pawel Maslona, of the ways in which families and communities, and entire nations, conspire to rewrite their histories and then defend these imagined landscapes through violent means, as happens in Demon, is not easily realized in any genre. Rather than couching the depiction of that eternal pattern in a horror film, Wrona compels his audience to see it as the very definition of horror, and the dybbuk as both a monster and the transformative figure who emerges to correct a great evil.

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