'Communion' is a Stark Picture of Familial Isolation

Director Anna Zamecka methodically constructs a narrative of adolescent resilience, withholding information while delivering compelling empathy.

HBO Europe

A young brother begs recognition from his sister. He moans. He cries. He pleads his existence to the lethargic lump of flesh falling into the bright abyss of her phone. She hears nothing, she says. Only the air. “I am not the air,” he responds. “I have arms, legs. I have a head and a torso.” Her blank stare only becomes more purposeful. He crawls as far into her space as he can, his hands stretching to the borders of the screen she’s chosen over his being. “You’re mean. Please, I’m not the air. I am an animal.”

Families are inescapable. We’re born into them, and before we can get the lay of the land, their claws are in our backs, pinning us to psychological baggage that has gathered over generations. Flight from their influence is about as possible as your influence affecting any change in their disposition. You are ensnared. You must find your place amongst them, and that is always painful.

In Communion, director Anna Zamecka plants her camera amongst a deteriorating Polish family. Fourteen-year-old Ola wages war with her autistic brother Nikodem. His mind is in constant drift, and Ola is tasked with capturing his attention and steering his education. Who gave her this role? Marek, their father, through the poisonous act of disregard. His place is sunken in a barstool or the recliner in front of the television — when there is a television.

Ola pines for the return of her mother, who already fled the premises before the documentary crew invaded. While the film never stops for exposition, the peripheral prescience of a newborn offers speculation that she is attempting a do-over with another man. One who may also be beating her. Mother and daughter stay in contact over the phone, and the lure of Nikodem’s upcoming communion binds their conversation.

A social worker appears and disappears. Ola manages the realities of her father’s drunkenness without utterly condemning him as a legal threat. Much of Communion concerns the checking of boxes. Memorize the scripture, don’t think about it. Get past the exams of outsiders so we can get back to the hard labor of survival.

Ola maintains composure for as long as she can. Sweeping an apartment that is crumbling as rapidly as the family within. She completes the laundry and the dishes. She packs the backpacks. She quizzes her brother. She berates her father’s choice of groceries and the money drained on bottles. The ammunition of stern glares and confident marching orders is dwindling. When Ola cracks into tears of frustration, her retreat into silence is unsurprising and understanding.

Nikodem’s cries are as ordinary and ever-present as the oxygen she breathes, and she’s choking on him. We catch only momentary windows in which she can withdraw from the responsibility of his care. An episode of TV here, a peek at her phone there, an afternoon swim with her friends halted by her father’s inability to match her tolerance for Nikodem. She is desperate for relief, but there is none in sight.

Zamecka gives herself a writing credit on the film. You can sense a script at play in all the elements the viewer is not seeing, as well as the ticking clock of the impending communion ceremony. Scenes start mid-exchange, or at the second a conversation climaxes. Clearly, the camera recorded something there. What was said between mother and daughter? Such information might seem important, but the excision of context leaves the audience in a constant game of catch-up.

The calculated suppression of exposition does add an electricity that might not otherwise be present, allowing sudden narrative shocks to occur. Mother arrives with baby in hand. Wha? Huh? Mother leaves with baby in hand. Wha? Huh? What happened there? Ultimately, the answers don’t matter. Ola and Nikodem remain.

Communion is not here to explain, offer hope, or resolution. Zamecka encountered a couple of children crushed under the weight of emotional abandonment and was struck by the resilience of the elder. Ola took on the responsibilities of her brother, molding him to fit the confines of school, church, and state. Given time, she could just as easily vanish as her mother and father have.

At an hour and twelve minutes, the film should barely have time to make an impression. Yet, Communion is as gripping as it is stressfully withholding. While Zamecka holds on the last shot, we are imprisoned by the possible future of these siblings. Our empathy is secured, and our questions linger. There must be so much more to this story. There must be other points of view that could offer insight. Corner the father. Corner the mother or even the social worker. Make them talk! However, their answers would certainly be no more satisfying or true than the simple picture of isolation painted by Communion.