Symmetry by Konrad Niewolski (Review)

A Polish prison film that raises interesting questions about the law and morality in general.
Symmetry - Konrad Niewolski

I’ve never been a big fan of prison movies, The Shawshank Redemption notwithstanding. And yet here I was, sitting in the Paramount at the Toronto International Film Festival, waiting for a prison movie to start. However, Symmetry is not at all what I was expecting. If you go in expecting something akin to Oz or Animal Factory, or even The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile, you’ll probably be somewhat disappointed.

Lukasz (Arkadiusz Detmer) is on his way home from a movie when he’s arrested and charged with assault. Although it’s pretty obvious that he’s innocent (the evidence against him is shaky at best), the victim fingered him in the line-up, and so he’s off to prison to await trial. When he arrives, he’s told he can either be a “reg” or a “loser.” Regs are the tough guys in prison, prisoners who walk around with a swagger and are respected. “Losers” are just that, losers who get picked on by everyone else. Despite the fact that Lukasz is most definitely not a hardened criminal, and is in fact terrified (something Detmer does an excellent job of conveying with little more than his eyes), he opts to be a “reg.”

He’s thrown into a cell with 5 other prisoners, many of whom are quite hardened criminals, being murderers, gangsters, and all. Although they give him plenty of grief, Lukasz reluctantly steps up to the plate to prove himself, and the other prisoners begin showing him the ropes. Eventually, Lukasz comes to be quite comfortable, achieving a sort of balance (the symmetry of the movie’s title) and falling into the rhythms of jail. However, there are moments when he breaks down, desperately hoping that his family’s attorney can somehow get him out, and even goes so far as attempting suicide.

But then a new prisoner, a child molester, arrives, and Lukasz is forced to take a long, hard look at his situation. The child molester is despised by everyone else, but there’s a good chance he’ll be getting out soon on bail, whereas the others, some of them actually decent men, will likely not see freedom for years. The film is obviously moving towards an inevitable conclusion, as Lukasz has to decide between being a “reg” and obeying the laws of his new surroundings, or trusting that the system that has screwed him over will do its job.

Symmetry does raise some interesting questions about the law, and morality in general. In one scene, two characters are discussing the Ten Commandments, and one asks what relevance “Honor thy father” has for a little girl who has just been raped by her father. Is it right for child molesters to go free on bail, while the truly innocent remain behind bars? What does it mean when the imprisoned are in a better position of executing morality than those who put them in prison in the first place? The film does an admirable job of trying to take such questions and set them in a real-life situation, where the troubling implications are left to go to their logical conclusions.

But though writer/director Konrad Niewolski does a good job of depicting the tough reality of prison life (he was incarcerated himself for a time), I was surprised at just how restrained and clinical the film was much of the time. I appreciated the film quite a bit, but I rarely found myself very involved in anything happening onscreen thanks to its cool tone. For example, we learn next to nothing of Lukasz before his incarceration. As such, his slow corruption by the prison environment never quite has the oomph it could’ve had otherwise, because we never have an idea of just how far he has fallen.

But on the other hand, I’m glad Niewolski didn’t simply resort to really shocking displays of depravity (no shower rape scenes, thank God) to get his point across. He allows his characters to have both nobility and humanity, as well as depravity. One character especially struck me as interesting, a former professor who, despite his incredible intelligence and learning, tracked down and killed his wife’s rapist in a fit of rage.

Visually, the film was almost always intriguing. Niewolski uses high-contrast, ultra-grainy footage to great effect, giving his scenes a lo-fi, almost documentary style. And he uses that oft-gimmicky effect, the fisheye lens, to great effect, subtly distorting Lukasz’ surroundings in order to increase his sense of claustrophobia.