The Polish movie “The Old Tale” reminds me not to take things for granted — although not in the way you might be thinking. Here’s why: the film’s script is oddly unconcern with imparting important info to the audience — such as the names of its characters. Seriously, folks, I’ve never encountered this problem before, but the movie never once tells us the name of its female lead. Unless, of course, there were problems with the subtitles, since I don’t speak Polish. Or maybe they mentioned her name just once in the entire movie and I wasn’t paying attention. Anything’s possible.
“The Old Tale” is based on a novel by Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski and its full title is “The Old Tale: When the Sun was God”, alluding to the fact that Polish people in the 9th century worshipped the sun as a God. And since the movie showcases moments of “God’s wrath” taking place, who can blame them? The film follows the evil Duchess (Malgorzata Foremniak, whose character is also never named) as she plots to make her son the next king. Unfortunately for Duchess, she is an ex-slave purchased by Prince Popiel (Bogdan Stupka), and thus her son is also a slave and can’t inherit the kingdom because the ruling Assembly won’t allow it. What’s an ambitious mom to do? Why, slaughter the Assembly, of course!
Thus begins the struggle, with the peasants ganging up to take on the scheming Duchess and her mad (not to mention easily manipulated) husband Popiel, who ended up on the throne because his brother, the rightful king, died unexpectedly and his sons were too young to take over. By the time the sons have grown up and are ready to ascend, Popiel kills one while the boy is asleep and frames the other. Of course killing his own nephews is a minor diversion for Popiel, who proceeds to either poison or decapitate everyone else who disagrees with his evil wife’s plans. If you haven’t guessed, this husband and wife team is evil.
In a backhanded sort of way I guess you can credit director Jerzy Hoffman and co-writer Jozef Hen for writing a script that has absolutely no ambiguity or complications to it. The A-plot is straightforward and breaks down in a simplistic fashion. In-between watching Bogdan Stupka act crazy and Marina Aleksandrova (“Avalon”) act evil, the film spends its time with charming loner Zietmowit (Michal Zebrowski) as he chases after the beautiful Dziwa (Marina Aleksandrova). Alas Dziwa is forbidden mortal pleasures because she’s been promised to a local shrine as a priestess. (If you were wondering how I knew whom the Dziwa and Duchess characters were since their names are never mentioned, it’s a combination of guessing and surfing the net. Needless to say, I shouldn’t have had to do this if the movie had done its job.)
Amusingly, “The Old Tale” is populated, seemingly, by idiots. One suspect that peasants in the 9th century were actually like this — unlearned, chauvinistic, and generally incapable of stringing together two coherent thoughts in a row. In fact, you’ve never seen such lousy strategists in a movie before, not to mention ones so dirty, unkempt, loud, and prone to violent acts because they don’t know any better. It’s no surprise that all Popiel has to do in order to repel the peasant attack is to close his fortress’s front door, since these guys are so dumb they’ll run right up to it and get killed en masse. Except for a selected few — Daniel Olbrychski’s Guardian and Foremniak’s Duchess being two — most of the characters in the movie are pretty thickheaded.
As a period film, “The Old Tale” has an authentic look. Things are generally very dirty, as they probably should be for people who live in the woods and off the land. Although I’m not sure how this explains why both Dziwa and another young lass name Mila (Katarzyna Bujakiewicz) have amazingly clear features when everyone is covered in mud, dirt, and sporting rotting teeth. How exactly did these two fair maidens end up so ravishing? In any case, the camera practically drools over Aleksandrova, and you will too once you catch sight of those lovely green eyes.
For action junkies suffering from withdrawal because it’s been a while since “Braveheart”, they might find some satisfaction here. There’s plenty of battles, all involving brutal combat that usually ends with the ground covered in bodies. Director Jerzy Hoffman even throws in some clever uses of CGI to enhance the action. But while there’s a lot of action, much of it is badly edited, resulting in an incoherent feel, as well as a general lack of flow. Granted, medieval combat might have been jagged and incomprehensible as shown, but this is a movie, and one expects some exercise of creative licenses to make things a bit more coherent.
In the final analysis, “The Old Tale” is a pretty decent movie. It’s rarely boring, the locations look very authentic, and the female eye candy provided by Marina Aleksandrova and Katarzyna Bujakiewicz (and yes, I did have to look up their names each time I typed it) is more than enough for the men in the audience. The brutal medieval combat is also entertaining, albeit a little amateurish in spots. Then again, you gotta love it when the Vikings show up to do some plundering and a whole lot of killing.
Still, one wishes the script was smarter and taken its time to not only tell us who is who, but give them more than just archetypical characteristics.
Jerzy Hoffman (director) / Jozef Hen, Jerzy Hoffman (screenplay), Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski (novel Stara Basn)
CAST: Michal Zebrowski …. Ziemek
Marina Aleksandrova …. Dziwa
Malgorzata Foremniak …. Ksiezna
Daniel Olbrychski …. Piastun
Bogdan Stupka …. Popiel
Anna Dymna …. Jaga
Ewa Wisniewska …. Jarucha