The title of husband and wife directors Anka and Wilhelm Sasnal’s debut feature is intensely enigmatic, but it oddly leaves little to the imagination as to the filmmakers’ stylistic goals. Filmed in a small nugget of farmland in rural Poland, It Looks Pretty from a Distance is gloriously bucolic in its imagery and lush with breathtaking long shots. But what’s depicted within the images—the swift dissolution of a poverty-stricken family’s home in the wake of the sudden disappearance of its chief scion—is often unpleasant in nature, seeing as the mud-and-piss-soaked realities of poverty are shown in glaring detail.
Working with first-time cinematographer Aleksander Trafas, the filmmakers are able to light and shoot a red-velvet bed left out in the sun with a small infestation of maggots writhing around on top and make it look like a lost canvas taken out of Claude Monet’s secret second apartment, which speaks to Wilhelm Sasnal’s extensive work as a painter. The simple beauty of such sustained moments, at first, seems to be all that the Sasnals’ are after.
The film is almost entirely bereft of diegetic sound, and dialogue for that matter; thus the natural sounds made up of the heaves and hos of quotidian labor and the unyielding buzz of the rural landscape take on an overwhelming, near-symphonic role in the mix. The snapping of twigs and the shuffle of leaves in the opening scene are particularly lovely, as the members of a small rural family set traps out in the woods.
We see an old man and his two sons, the more handsome of which has a girlfriend, the daughter of a neighbor. She stays over some nights and moves in after the family sends its elderly matriarch away to a home, but the girl is ordered home by her father when her boyfriend and his family inexplicably leave for an indeterminable amount of time. Either the disappearance or (more likely) the societal shame of abandoning their matriarch could be construed as the inciting act that brings out the most ambivalently corrupt and primitive inclinations of the small surrounding community. These inclinations erupt as the family’s house is picked clean and then burnt away, in a sequence colored in blue midnight, making the late return of the handsome son and his father all the more devastating.
The directors, working from their own script, take careful, strictly non-expositional steps to unravel the vaguely familiar story, which eerily culminates with the intersecting of the unspoken but strongly held traditions of a community untouched by progress, the darker impulses and philosophies the “simple life” can breed, and a sort of barely dormant cannibalistic materialism. It bring to mind nothing less than the spellbinding Revanche, though Götz Spielmann’s intentions on class warfare, low-tier crime, and marital discord gave that film a crucial punch that left a more substantial bruise than the Sasnals’ film.
The rift between the two lovers, though they hardly say more than a dozen words to one another, remains the film’s central conflict and, in the relationship’s sudden conclusion, the trajectory of their quiet romance is more blunt than entirely convincing. It plays a little too much like a conclusion engineered for shock, though to the filmmakers’ credit, it gets pulled off with a brilliant sense of timing. If anything, it just further attests to the silence-ridden strangeness of the film; the offbeat rhythms of the Sasnals’ tracking shots, close-ups, and pans keep the film poised perfectly between naturalist observation and fever dream. The palpable dread that’s stirred by these seemingly minor actions is remarkable, and it leaves the film feeling like a testament to how easily anyone can find (or feign) justification for the most selfish, and heartless acts against their fellow man. It Looks Pretty from a Distance is, in some ways, a tale from the end of days.