The wryly titled Polish Wedding, which does not have a wedding scene, is an engaging, slight movie about a lusty working-class family in the Detroit Polish community of Hamtramck. The only daughter among four sons is Hala, a nubile, spirited adolescent played by Claire Danes.
The story is about her coming of age as a woman, but the performances of Gabriel Byrne and, especially, Lena Olin, as her sensuous parents, Bolek and Jadzia Pzoniak, are so potent that Polish Wedding becomes as much the mother's story. In any case, like mother, like daughter.
Drenched in ethnicity and family and focused on the mazurka of mating, the film is easily seen as a kind of kin to Moonstruck.
Much of the coming and going and carrying on romantically takes place under cover of darkness. Characters gaze meditatively into the night sky. White curtains billow in the breeze. There's even a glimpse of a pale, full moon radiating enchantment on Hamtramck and Hala. And lyrical, hummable folk music underscores the sense of a lower middle-class fariytale.
First-time filmmaker Theresa Connelly, who grew up in Hamtramck, winningly captures the flavour and rhythms of this humble family rich in life and vitality.
Working with Canadian cinematographer Guy Dufaux, Connelly even managers to make virtues out of her constraints.
The low-budget movie was show entirely in Hamtramck in an area of a few blocks surrounding a cathedral, and master shots of the locale are repeated often. This repetition emphasizes the circumscribed life of Hala and her family, just as the small kitchen and confined shooting area reflects the close-knit but sometimes claustrophobic relationships.
As well Connelly and Dufaux treat us to some intriguing images: a red uniformed street hockey team skating around a corner and a girl in a white wedding dress running down and alley and across a field.
But while the first part of the film is rather beguiling, Polish Wedding falters as the story deepens and slides to its conclusion.
The narrative lacks some clarity. For example, but cutting away from scenes of sexual foreplay, Connelly leaves us unsure of the identity of the fellow who's the father of Hala's baby, though all the characters in the movie, including Hala seem to know.
The tension in the narrative derives not only from Hala's short-term and long-term predicament -- whether she'll get away with leading the church procession of the Virgin and then whether she'll get the guy to marry her -- but also from Jadzia's straying and Bolek's response.
Character and atmosphere seem to be Connelly's strong suits, as well as drawing strong performances from actors.
Olin is superb as the earthy, sensuous wife, mother, adulterous lover, office cleaner and self-described "queen."
To meet her lover, Jadzia dons a uniform, complete with sweeping cape and perky hat, and tells Bolek she's going to a Polish Ladies Auxiliary meeting. "I'd like to know what it is auxiliary to," grumbles Bolek.
Polish Wedding has been criticized on two counts for its portrayal of women -- for representing church-going Polish Catholic women as wonton and adulterous, and on the other hand, for suggesting that home, family, and motherhood are the ultimate achievement for women.
Connelly may be overdoing the Madonna/motherhood imagery, but it is the theme of her film, starting with the art work that accompanies the opening credits and includes both religious icons and secular representations of sensual women.
© Toronto Star 1998