Does the latest film from the infamous Polish exploitation filmmaker finally go too far?
We’ve encountered Polish director Patryk Vega before: his demented forays have thus far been equal parts perplexing, surprising and entertaining, offering rambling but glossy, well-made exploitation films. Never has anything so daft had such high production values, and trust me, I’ve seen a lot of expensive, daft films in my time. Based on my experience up until this point, I was poised to describe Vega as a kind of Polish mid-period Paul Verhoeven, taking on and ramping up his subject matter until reality dwindles and a characteristic, vivid fantasy holds sway.
But Small World is not Botoks; nor is it Women of Mafia. The subject matter here is the thorny topic of child trafficking and sexual exploitation, something which – shall we say – jars rather heavily alongside the usual madcap, underwritten/overacted international interludes. It goes from unsettling, to what I can only describe as borderline illegal, before swinging back in the direction of laugh-out-loud action sequences and more characteristic shlock. Things are a lot darker here, and it makes it more difficult to simply settle into things, whilst Vega’s characteristic lack of filter is used here in some very unseemly ways. Let me try to explain.
We start with some sage on-screen titles about raising children and a quick visit to a Catholic church, which seems to suggest that this is going to have more than a grain of that very conservative, pro-family, anti-abortion content which Vega has dabbled with before; the Polish establishment is notoriously reactionary and that attitude does filter in here, at odd moments. We’re with a four-year-old girl, Ola and her loving single mother, who discuss the time, a few years from now, when little Ola will herself be wearing a nice white dress and heading off for her first Communion. That, the ominous declarations of love between them, and the sudden presence of a drunk, disinterested stepdad figure who can’t abide ‘the kid’ might just clue us in that Bad Things are going to occur, and they duly do: some dreadful Russians use dreadful Russian sweets to kidnap the little girl (or does dodgy stepdad sell her?) and Mum races off to try and find her, fairly randomly encountering a detective (Piotr Adamczyk) en route, who drops what he’s doing and vows to help her find Ola for the next… and excuse the spoiler…very, very long time.
The film is nearly two hours in duration, so we have ample time to ponder the passing of the years. First, three years go by with our detective, Robert – now seemingly single-handedly taking on police corruption in Russia – narrowly missing out on finding the seven-year-old Ola who has become the beloved favourite of affable slot badger Uncle Oleg (Andris Keiss), a man who almost gets a moral pass because he only photographs and ‘gets entertained’ by the five small children living in his apartment, rather than having intercourse with them. Why yes, they do show a fair amount of these underage photos which, whilst not explicit, are certainly far more than we would ever see in films and TV made in the UK (though the film does take a trip to the UK – more anon). Oleg has to get rid of his playthings, so off they go to Slovenia, or possible Slovakia, sorry, I can’t remember – I was trying to process the previous scenes. More years pass, with Detective Robert growing ever wearier and more bearded as his mental state presumably begins to falter under the enormity of the sex abuse ring he has started to unearth. This later brings us to lovely Rotherham in the UK, a town whose reputation as a hotbed of rape and abuse has clearly made it across the miles to Poland – doesn’t it make you proud to be British?
Again, the scenes shot in Rotherham skirt close to unbearable, as the now eleven-or-so-year-old Ola, or ‘Candy’, is presented to us as clearly sexually active, flirting with the long-suffering detective when he tracks her down for the umpteenth time. For one reason and another, the chase goes on, with some sudden plot developments and shifts in tone that feel tacky and nasty rather than funny. I just don’t think you can go from suggestions of a small girl having a hymen restoration operation, with some of this being shown on screen, to enjoying a high-action shootout with silly dialogue. And then, there’s a sharp turn into occult subject matter, which is dropped as rapidly as it takes centre stage and can do little except make you quietly exclaim, ‘Oh Jesus Christ’ under your breath like Sergeant Howie might have done when he finally ran out of air.
Call it conditioning, certainly, as we live in hypervigilant times for this sort of thing, but Small World pushed it too far for me given its topic. The small details that could usually be straightforwardly funny – the smuggling ring that transports kids in a van with a huge, leering clown logo on it, for instance – are spliced with elements that are genuinely uncomfortable. It feels too jaded, too inappropriate to wave a lot of this through as standard Vega, OTT fun. Polish cinema as a rule doesn’t seem shy of tackling child abuse quite openly on screen, but here, it’s a big ask. The casual requests from one character to another as to whether they should ‘hook up’, right in between shooting at paedophiles; the winsome, cheerfully clueless approach to how law enforcement works; the glib treatment with which a lot of presumably serious plot points get given; man, is it possible to square this circle?
How to try: Small World confirms that Patryk Vega is probably as out of his mind as he is mysteriously well-funded, and this may be the final frontier in slick modern exploitation cinema. (If this film is in any way genuinely intended to ‘raise awareness’ of these crimes, then that is madder still.) It’s not a film I can really recommend in any way other than saying, ‘I can’t believe they did that in a film’. Perhaps it will linger as something people dare their friends to take a look at. I don’t know. Who knows? It’s a naïve, shocking and unseemly film and I’d like my Mafia Women back, please.
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