This modest black-and-white fable was written by the late Polish writer-director Krzysztof Kieslowski back in the ’70s during an oppressive period in his country’s history, and it’s an allegory on the stifling pressures of conformity. Directed by and starring Jerzy Sturh, who appeared in Kieslowski’s Decalogue and Three Colors: White, the film is memorable less for its familiar message than for its low-key balancing of absurdist humor with social commentary.
The title character is a camel, left behind in a small town for reasons unknown, by a departing circus and quickly adopted by Zygmunt Sawicki (Stuhr) and his wife Marysia (Anna Dymna).
At first Zygmunt is just content to possess the camel. It’s a good companion for his long walks in the country; it seems to appreciate his clarinet playing (it sings along, after a fashion) and in general is a refreshing novelty in his routine life. He’s willing to share the camel with the village children but declines a television station’s offer of a huge sum of money to use the animal in a commercial. He finds the idea of exploiting the camel, which he adores, for financial gain repugnant, and when some government officials approach him with the idea of using it as an attraction at the upcoming Great Jubilee Celebration, his refusal is the beginning of the end of his dromedary idyll.
Once the officials start spreading rumors about the camel — specifically that it’s probably diseased and could be a danger to the children — the allegorical thrust of the movie becomes obvious, though pointed. The despairing message here is not just that the officials are malicious and manipulative but that the common folk are so conditioned to obeying their masters that they all fall in line when camel-hating comes into style. Not only does no one stand up for Zygmunt and his unconventional though harmless pet, they also begin to suggest that he and his wife should probably leave town.
But this is too gentle a tale for the villagers to become an actual lynch mob, and Zygmunt and Marysia’s fate is more bittersweet than tragic. The Big Animal is too slight to be a significant addition to the Kieslowski canon, but it does convey much of the empathetic sadness that was his trademark.
In Polish with English subtitles. Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit) Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].