BFI LFF 2021

Leave No Traces review – tense and riveting Polish power battle

This political thriller from director Jan P. Matuszyński, inspired by true events, remains gripping across its lengthy runtime

Reaching into history and looking for direct parallels with our lives today is risky business – too often the search for lessons to learn in the past risks equivocating crimes of equal stature but different contexts within the present. Leave No Traces, telling of the trial arising from the fallout of the illegal arrest, beating and eventual murder of a student in 1983 in post-martial law Poland, readily invites such comparisons, without making too didactic a point about it.

Though it’s shot with an immediacy and tension that places you right in the moment at time, there is a very keenly articulated sense of the wider powers at play. Leave No Traces is willing to pan back and observe the wider power structures going on – something exceptionally difficult to depict on screen.

The immediacy is present through almost all of the film’s 2 hour-and-40-minute runtime. The film’s scenes of violence are ugly and agonising, whilst in quieter scenes, director Jan P. Matuszyński pitches the camera back, using zoom lens to suggest a surveillance state always listening into its citizens.

For the most part, we follow the proceedings of Jurek Popiel (Tomasz Ziętek) the fellow student who witnesses the beatings and who emerges as the key witness for the trial. Much of the film’s tensions come in seeing how the state security forces, still on edge after the mass Solidarity protests in the early 80s, attempt to manipulate and intimidate prosecution proceedings in their favour – putting cracks into the Popiel family, requesting a more sympathetic prosecutor, frightening circumstantial witnesses. Jurek may be a rock’n’roll layabout, like many a commie youth of the ‘80s, but his father Tadeusz (Jacek Braciak) remains loyal to the communist project, and the film does an excellent job of highlighting the confusion and familial divides between those who still see an identity for themselves in the country and those who don’t.

Beyond the familial circles, there are the bureaucratic figures who populate much of the halls of power. Here, too, Matuszyński’s often careful sense of who is playing which chess game makes for a riveting battle of power. Mediocrity rather than imagination defines these men, and that’s key to the eventual decisions they make, even when framed in powerful ornate settings.

The central performances are quite powerful and nuanced, displaying a breadth of approaches to their characters. But a number of supporting characters are played so ham-fistedly, you’d think they walked in from a pantomime. This strange lack of control in the supporting cast is bizarre, given how much focus is displayed in other areas.

Elsewhere, the film underplays the Catholic influence in the anti-communist Polish resistance in the ‘80s – an interesting decision given that Catholic ideology has formed much of post-communist Poland’s conservative and anti-democratic streak. Is this a deliberate ploy to keep us focused in the here and now of the film, or the sense of a script that already has too much detail in it? Nevertheless, the immediacy, central leads, and political backstabbing are more than enough to keep intrigue high, even as it slips firmly below many a festival radar.

Leave No Traces screened as part of BFI London Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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