Sandwiched within the first hour of "East of Paradise" is helmer Lech Kowalski's mother retelling her wrenching experiences in the early days of World War II. What follows is her son's attempt to come to terms with his own inability to better his mother's story, and so Kowalski narrates his odyssey through the worlds of amateur porn and junkie dens in a shockingly narcissistic bid for an experience equal to his mother's genuine and inescapable nightmare. The most surprising winner in Venice -- the Horizons prize -- docu is sure to cause controversy in its limited fest engagements.
Pic forms the last and most personal segment of the underground helmer's "Wild Wild East" trilogy, begun with "Boot Factory" and "Hitler's Highway." At least he has the sense to present his mother's story in a straightforward manner, keeping the camera largely still as he focuses on Maria Werla Kowalski's harrowing description of her youth fleeing Nazis and Soviets.
With extraordinary recall and an unselfconscious feel for language, she tells her story beginning in Cracow and continuing through Soviet gulags. It's a tale of separation and loss and starvation. Through it all, she maintained a fierce though battered willpower in the face of inescapable horrors.
At the end of her emotional tale, just after she expresses doubt as to whether anyone who hadn't lived through that dark period could understand what it was like, her son switches gears and tells his own story. And a pale, hollow story it proves to be. Using footage from his earlier pics, Kowalski traces his salad days as a filmmaker when he worked on a docu about the porn industry.
After cheaply shot and truly unappealing images of S&M devotees, he discusses his fascination with New York's drug culture, replete with images of guys shooting up and an especially gratuitous shot of a doped-up skateboarder vomiting along a busy avenue.
Presumably Kowalski's point is that his mother's horrific experiences led him to search out ever-degrading worlds in a bid to experience something approaching her struggles. But it's awfully hard to feel for the helmer when his self-imposed descent into purgatory is compared with his mother's forced plunge.
Much of the footage from Kowalski's earlier pics was shot on a variety of formats, with expected contrasts between grainy images and the sharper footage of his mother. He's never lost his indebtedness to Cassavetes, and music, long his strong suit, covers a range of styles from Coltrane and James Brown to the Sex Pistols.
Camera (color/B&W), Mark Brady, Kowalski; production designer, Nicolas Verdeau; sound (DTS stereo), Bill Galagher; sound designer, Val Kuklowski. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 7, 2005. Running time: 108 MIN.
(Polish, English dialogue)