THE STORY – Yearning for a world beyond the fertile yet arduous one known to her, a maiden resides with her mother in the picturesque Polish countryside of the 19th century, where the homespun traditions of peasantry date back to antiquity.
THE CAST – Kamila Urzedowska, Robert Gulaczyk, Sonia Mietielica, Miroslaw Baka & Ewa Kasprzyk
THE TEAM – DK Welchman & Hugh Welchman (Directors/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 114 Minutes
“Loving Vincent” left cinephiles in awe. It’s not often you watch a film and can claim that everything about it is wholly original and has never been done before. But as the world’s first fully painted film, it’s just that. It brought to life the paintings of Vincent van Gogh to tell his story in a unique and fitting manner. Re-imagining over 120 of the artist’s paintings into film, with every one of its 65,00 frames oil painted by hand, directors DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman achieved something truly incredible. Now, after six long years, the duo and the groundbreaking, hand-painted animation style are back. “The Peasants,” based on the Nobel Prize-winning novel by Wladyslaw Reymont, is much more epic in scope than its predecessor. This sharply drawn naturalistic portrait of 19th-century Polish life is a spellbinding tableau of tragic love and one woman’s yearning for independence.
“The Peasants” unfolds with the changing of seasons. In the small farming community of Lipce, everything is dictated by the cycle of harvest and tradition. But among all of the festivals and celebrations, there is also wicked gossip, bitter feuds, and a forbidden romance. The key players in this story get caught up in all three. Boryna (Miroslaw Baka) is the village’s richest farmer; as a result, all his children want a piece of his land. His son-in-law wants to take Boryna to court for the piece of land he believes rightfully belongs to his wife, but if this widow gets married again, all of that will go away. Finding a sugar daddy is a goal for many these days, but back then, not so much, especially when women were sold like cattle to the highest bidder or to the first man who delivered his vodka.
Boryna has his eyes set on marrying Jagna (Kamila Urzedowska), the most beautiful girl in the village. However, possessing such beauty comes with the jealous ire of every other woman. Referred to as a “whore” and a “farmhand chaser,” Jagna is the subject of all the gossip over boiling cabbage, and the possibility of her owning a portion of Boryna’s land if they marry sends everyone on edge. Including the widower’s son Antek (Robert Gulaczyk), but he’s upset for another reason: He’s in love with Jagna, and she is with him. Most of the film’s first half follows their secret romance. Their dance is full of simmering passion and wordless glances with an intensity painted brilliantly to cover them in the red glow of a fire. Lukasz Rostkowski’s mesmerizing score is full of emotion in these moments but gradually grows more somber, marking the reality that Jagna’s fate is already sealed in a marital contract signed with the land’s soil. This denial of true love creates madness, affecting not only the lovers but also everyone around them. “Love comes and goes, but land stays,” Jagna’s mother says. That isn’t enough. Jagna, stepping outside patriarchal lines, sends the town into a tailspin, resulting in a story that’s both tragic and of exaltation.
Each character is brought to life in painting beautifully from live action, never sacrificing any emotion in their performances. The cast delivers all around, but the artistry within the film steals the show and acts like a character. Paint flows onscreen in luscious, colorful strokes. Each line moves in sync with each character, each cloud, each blade of grass. Never has a painting felt so alive (Well, if you don’t count “Loving Vincent“). The work of the hundreds of artists involved shines most of all with each change of season, from sunshine to rain, and in the intricacy of the details, like in the delicacy of the costuming. It’s a dreamlike canvas painted with a Young Poland brush in a realist poet’s hand.
Much of the realism in “The Peasants” lies in how much this story’s truth still resonates today. Calling it a tragic tale when the lead is a woman casts a dark cloud in the back of the mind. But its relatability holds poignancy because women have been fighting for centuries. However, film or literary works like these end with a note of relief. Among all the double standards, female rebellion still speaks loudly. Much like our ancestors of the time, like Jagna, women still have to fight for space in a patriarchal society. There will always be a fight left, though, and against a weakened resistance.