I suppose we’ve all wondered at one time or another what would happen if one morning a camel suddenly appeared in our front yard... well OK, maybe not. But after seeing Jerzy Stuhr’s delightful The Big Animal, I have now given the matter some thought and have concluded that I’d fare no better (and probably worse) than the Polish couple depicted in this film. They gamely adopt the camel and then try to get on with their lives. It’s their neighbors who’ve got a problem with the big animal, and everyone’s life becomes way too complicated... except perhaps for the camel’s.
This story comes from a screenplay by Stuhr’s friend Krzysztof Kieslowski, (The Decalog, the Three Colors trilogy) and is a comic study of what happens when an ordinary town is put to an extraordinary test. It looks at the good and bad in human nature with a fairly even hand. It’s a wise and entertaining adult fable.
Thou Shalt Not Covet
- Interview with director
- On-the-set documentary
Stuhr himself plays Zygmunt Sawicki, a solid citizen, bank clerk, member of the local civic orchestra who along with his wife Marysia (Anna Dymna) adjust to sharing their home (or at least their yard) with their unanticipated and exotic guest, a bactrian camel that has been left behind by a traveling circus. Is it a mistake for the couple to adopt the camel? They don’t seem to be too concerned about how it will affect their neighbors. Still, they are generous and kind to the animal and it even likes to listen to Zygmunt play his clarinet. In fact it sings along with him. Zygmunt casually (but with some pride) walks the camel through the city center on market day as if it were just a really big dog. The other townsfolk look on with some surprise and give out mild jests. This is too good to last.
In time, Zygmunt’s neighbors begin to fall into two groups: those who fear the camel because it’s out of the ordinary and those who want to exploit the camel for their own personal gain. And so appear ignorance and greed.
There may be some symbolism here with the camel representing the sudden arrival of Western material possessions in formerly Communist Poland. (Next to Coke, what could be more American than Camel cigarettes?) Or it may be that the camel represents that thing (and it can be any “thing”) that sets one person apart from the group. Or, in being a fable, it may be whatever you want to make of it.
I’m Camel-Guy, You’re Not
The crux of the problem is that Zygmunt is now camel-guy and everyone else isn’t. Bit by bit he and Marysia become more isolated from the community and at the same time more determined to hang on to their camel. Zygmunt loses his position in the civic orchestra and the students no longer come to Marysia’s school.
Eventually the camel disappears as mysteriously as it came. There is no explanation but there are some clues and suggestions. There is a dark cloud hanging over the local cops who have been eyeing the camel for its coat... a not-too-farfetched disappearance for post-Communist Poland.
I prefer to think that the camel left on its own. As life becomes harder for the couple, the camel becomes morose and will no longer sing along with Zygmunt’s clarinet. This critter must be the worlds sweetest-tempered camel and perhaps it knows what’s best for Zygmunt and Marysia. At any rate, it’s gone and all Zygmunt has left is its broken bridle.
In a marvelous postscript, Zygmunt later visits a festival in the city center and is perversely greeted by his neighbors as a hero. He’s congratulated for having stuck to his guns when the going got tough. These neighbors seem blind to the irony that they themselves were his chief persecutors. He is sad and still misses the big animal but gathers hope when a child quietly shows him a little plastic toy camel he has hidden in his jacket. The child seems to say, “Yes brother, I too harbor a camel... but I know, as do you, that I must do so secretly.” And so the camel-torch is passed to another generation.
What it all means might be a puzzlement, but if you’ve got to ask, maybe you aren’t ready for your camel just yet.
***There is an interesting made-for-Polish-TV interview with Jerzy Stuhr entitled Controlled Testimonies. It has little, if anything, to do with The Big Animal but is worth watching for a candid insight into Stuhr, and for its charming home-town attempt at sophistication by being set in a jazz bar... with real jazzy music playing in the background! There is also a short piece shot on the set of The Big Animal that is worth a viewing.
Picture and Sound
**1/2 The movie and DVD feature competent visuals and sound. But this is a small production made for Polish TV (which, when you think about it, is probably better than most of the stuff that’s usually made for American broadcast.)
How to Use this DVD
Don’t try to crack the code or strain your back lifting a message out of it. This is a very pleasant little film, so sit back and enjoy it. Watch the short piece from the set of the movie if you feel like it, and skip the interview with Stuhr if you weren’t fascinated by his performance or direction. Later you can wonder about what exactly happened to the camel and what does it all mean.