A young wannabe student and an anthropology professor obsessed with a recently discovered mummified body of a mysterious shaman meet at the train station in Krakow, Poland. She (Iwona Petry) asks if He (Boguslaw Linda) could help her find a place to stay. He offers to help and minutes later the two succumb to their most primitive carnal desires.
The girl (we only come to know her as the "Italian") soon reveals powerful catatonic symptoms forcing her to react in some most unusual ways. The sex between the professor and the student evolves into an abusive game of pain, humiliation, and indescribable perversions. While the professor continues to be obsessed with his discovery She becomes more and more distanced eventually losing her soul to the devil.
Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, a man who was once married to French actress Sophie Marceau, certainly knows how to create provocative cinema. After the enormous success of his bloody thriller Possession (1981) which provided Isabelle Adjani with the coveted Best Actress Award during the Cannes Film Festival his latest scandalous film Szamanka (1996) based on Manuela Gretkowska's script to me personally proves that the enigmatic Pole practically knows no creative boundaries whatsoever. From Catholicism to cannibalism to sexual degradation and necrophilia Szamanka unfolds as a terrifying story about the dark corners of the human soul told in a manner that transforms the gruesome imagery from Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001) into a laughable attempt in originality.
Very confusing and I believe intentionally fractured into little pieces Szamanka begins as a tame piece concerned with one man's obsession with a centuries-old mummy. Soon however it becomes evident that just about everything in this film is meant to symbolize something else: the mummy and its effect on those who become entangled in its "mystery" symbolizes the lifeless communist regime and its "allure" amongst the masses; the irrational behavior of She reflects the state of controlled madness those living in Poland are faced with; the tragic finale symbolizes the imminent death of a regime that is already a historic relic. Furthermore, the bizarre and often violent sex scenes between She and He seem to be the only time when the two characters in Szamanka find some sort of a rhythm, this seems to be the only time when they achieve harmony. Under the thunderous beats of ritual Tam-Tams the couple is slowly but surely destroying itself.
I am going to make a very bold assumption here and claim that anyone who has not lived under the oppressive and self-destructive conditions the communist governments from the ex-Soviet block imposed on their people will have a very difficult time understanding Szamanka. Most certainly the construction of the film and the manner in which the story is told are quite unconventional. From the seemingly out of place humor (yet it is very well thought of in my opinion) to the pornographic "love" Zulawski has captured on screen Szamanka is a film that will question your criteria for "acceptable cinema". There is a very thin line the Polish director is walking here which I am certain will divide viewers into two passionate camps-some will claim that Szamanka is a brutally provocative film about human madness with plenty of social overtones while other will claim that it is simply a disguised as art pornographic exercise in originality.
No matter what camp you side with Szamanka is unlike anything you have seen before. The mystery surrounding Iwona Petry only further adds to the already cult status of this unknown in America film. After the completion of Szamanka the stunningly beautiful Polish actress disappeared leaving very little behind her-some Polish newspapers claimed she went on a spiritual journey to India, others insisted that she was in New York, while many "agreed" she committed suicide.
Thankfully the enigmatic Polish beauty reemerged from anonymity a few years later publishing a book with short stories none of which seem to address her tragic involvement with Szamanka.
Szamanka was screened during the Venice Film Festival in Italy (1996).
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and not enhanced for widescreen TV's (unlike what the box states on the back-an aspect ratio of "4:3") the film does appear to have been sourced from a secondary analog master. There is plenty of "ghosting" in this release, colors are weak but not poor, while contrast remains just a tiny notch above average. Indeed applying all of the common standards we have come to judge other releases by this Russian DVD feels just a tiny bit better than a VHS. NTSC-encoded, Region 5 (even though the disc originates from Russia it is actually NTSC, Region-ALL).
How Does the DVD Sound?
Unfortunately the audio presentation is just as weak as the video treatment is. In fact the original Polish audio is nowhere to be found! What we have here is a Dolby Digital Russian dub and a Dolby Digital French dub with optional Russian and English white subtitles. I am unsure why the producers of this DVD have opted for these two tracks but I suspect it must be the fact that the actual film is nowhere to be found in its "complete form".
Aside from a short biography (in Russian) highlighting events from Zulawski's life there is nothing else to be found here.
Before we proceed with the final recommendation here allow me to point a few facts to you that I hope will let you "understand" my evaluation. For more than six years I looked to track down a copy of this film (a decent widescreen release) regardless of the format (a VHS with proper English subtitles would have been splendid). Unfortunately given the tragic events surrounding the completion of Szamanka and the numerous accusations which the Polish authorities fired at Zulawski the film was all but banned (claims of physical abuse linking Zulawski's name to the beautiful Iwona Petry were indeed circulating everywhere). As a result in Poland Zulawski faced an unprecedented heavy criticism from the disgusted critics.
Fortunately enough Szamanka did much better abroad. But even the typically liberal French market had a difficult time providing the film with a passable release. Given how enormously popular Zulawski is in France and the magnificent treatment his other works have received I found all of the "mystery" surrounding this film to be quite unusual (the copy herein reviewed carries the StudioCanal logo). And as it often happens all of the controversy only further added to my appetite to see this film.
Finally, from all places Russia (where Russian distribs seem to be releasing EVERYTHING that comes under the sun no matter how controversial) provided a copy of the film which fortunately does offer English subtitles. While the original Polish audio has been replaced with a French dub (from the French VHS release I would assume) at least we finally can see this controversial film. And yes, this is extreme cinema at its best!!
So, this being said my evaluation of the film is split in two categories A) following the standards we have come to follow here Szamanka fails on all fronts. As far as I am concerned this is a slightly better than VHS transfer which you should avoid if you are looking for optimal DVD quality. Plain and simple! Period! B) As I do not foresee a R1 release of this film (unless one of the proven risk-takers such as Synapse Films licenses a copy from Studio Canal which I believe to be out of their league) Szamanka is very unlikely to see a proper English-friendly release. The massive onslaught on Catholicism this film provides as well as the heavy abusive nature of Manuela Gretkowska's script (bordering pornography) somewhat tell me that America is "better off without it". I have been wrong in the past but I do not see how a major US studio (Warner seems to have a close relationship with Studio Canal) will license and release this Polish film with all of the controversy that surrounded its Polish release. Consider all of the above and this Russian version of Szamanka comes highly recommended.
This review was made possible with the kind assistance of Xploited Cinema