Maciej Cuske’s 28-minute short Old Bookstore from 2005 takes place entirely in a claustrophobically cramped bookstore in Warsaw, run by acerbic and sometimes gruff Mr. Krzyś. As the camera peers up-close at customers, Cuske focuses not so much on scholarly connoisseurship, though some of the sharper shoppers seek literary gems to resell elsewhere, but on the odd and the uncanny: a zoologist-cum-cookbook-writer and dog-show judge who nurses swallows in her apartment; an elderly architect who collects pornography magazines and recounts his early sexual hang-ups; or the local homeless and alcoholics who come to borrow money. Beleaguered and snappy, Mr. Krzyś is as likely to pause for a lengthy debate with an esteemed buyer as he is to send a casual one packing, refusing to look for books in the Kafkaesque chaos of unending stacks.
A consummate observer, noted for his sympathetic and often humorous approach to social portraiture, Cusek creates in Old Bookstore a peripheral microcosm, cherishing oddities and withdrawing judgment. Even more than the colorful portraits, what gives his short its playful energy is Mr. Krzyś’s antagonistic attitude to the very objects to which he’s dedicated. When he complains that entire Warsaw dumps its books onto him, we see a frustrated collector befit for the 21st century when paper is increasingly seen as a nuisance.
Somewhat different in method and tone is Cuske’s feature documentary Remember the Sabbath Day, which won the top prize at the Kraków Film Festival in 2008. Cuske, who attended the Wajda School in Warsaw and is seen as following such famed predecessors as Krzysztof Kieślowski, presented the film as part of the project Decalogue…After Decalogue. Inspired by Kieślowski, the project included a series of works that investigated the Poles’ religious attitudes.
Unlike the third part of Kieślowski’s Decalouge, which turned religious observance into a pretext to tell a richly layered story about the sanctity of family, and the poison of despair and solitude, Remember the Sabbath Day takes a more straightforward approach to the topic of religious fervor. Cuske stars in his own film, mostly behind the camera, providing questions and commentary to his son’s preparations for his first communion. The festiveness of boys enthusiastically singing in church soon turns into a generational conflict; Cuske’s son dreams of getting a bike on his communion day, yet fakes diarrhea to skip study sessions, while the pious grandparents challenge the filmmaker’s religious skepticism. Ritual and family battle personal conviction as Cuske and his wife debate forcing their son into religious adherence.
Recording his son’s attempts at sabotage, Cuske steadily creates his own character, of a warm-hearted, needling polemicist-turned-conflicted-parent. He shows how easily we invest in practices whose meaning is vague to us, such as when Cuske’s father explains Palm Sunday saying it’s the day when Jesus “came to the city, and so, unfortunately, all Catholics are obliged to celebrate it.” The explanation isn’t intentionally glib, but moments like these function as a wink at the audience, keying us in to the foibles and ironies implicit in social mores.
Polish Filmmakers NYC will present Old Bookstore and Remember the Sabbath Day at Tribeca Film Center on Thursday, September 26, at 7pm, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker.