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The Big Animal

In all likelihood this is the only Polish film that has ever featured this mammal; but it is undoubtedly the only one to feature the adoption of a Bactrian camel by a Polish couple sitting at dinner one late evening. Despite their reputation as beasts of the sand dunes, some species of camels (specifically Bactrian camels, which are native to the Mongolian steppe) can live in colder weather, but are not quite as fond of it – as far as we can ascertain what camels are and are not fond of. Why a camel rather than another exotic animal completely out of place in Northern Europe? Were this camel trotting about, say, Central Park in today's political climate, one might cynically speculate as to the cultural associations that spring to mind (my godfather once quipped that such a tale would surely become a bestseller, especially if it featured a cross-park chase scene). As it were, a Bactrian camel is probably one of the more peaceful, low-maintenance animals you will find. It can eat and drink sporadically, acclimate to almost any type of weather, carry up to half a ton on or between its two humps, and does not need much exercise. When it does eat, it enjoys cud and other delicacies and generally minds its own business, masticating slowly with its double-jointed jaws. Its appearance on endangered species lists stems from its paucity in the wild, as the vast majority have been domesticated and are considered to be good pets. And who's to say that a good pet in China and Mongolia cannot be a good pet in Poland? In a way, a camel in a Polish village makes as much sense as an elephant in a city zoo, a point made during the course of The Big Animal.

It is never quite explained how, one evening, the adoptive parents Zygmunt and Maria Sawicki (Jerzy Stuhr and Anna Dymna) hear a noise in the modest, average garden of their modest average house, and how the source of that noise is none other than a large camel grazing on their lawn. The most logical idea would involve a runaway from a circus, as circuses are the refuge for everything not accepted by mainstream society. The looks they exchange suffice to tell us that the same thought has passed through their minds, but it remains unspoken. Soon thereafter, Zygmunt, who seems like he always really wanted a pet, is parading the unnamed mammal about town on a leash to the mockery and amazement of the locals. Yet what is most interesting is that the motive for such behavior appears to be altruistic: Zygmunt is convinced that his modest, average garden is no place for a beast that large (Bactrian camels are often the size of a bigger horse), and he very responsibly leads it to graze in the countryside. Yet that is not how the public sees it. That same day, he returns to his job as a bank clerk gorged on the wonder of nature's details and spouting platitudes which elicit a swoony response from an attractive young female colleague. Not that, mind you, Zygmunt notices. No, he is far too busy fending off suggestions that this curious addition to the village will net him a pretty penny. "How could I sell it?" he says, horrified at the idea. "I'm just happy it's there." An unusual but sincere sentiment, although no one believes it. 

Zygmunt returns from a long day to find Maria and the camel sharing space tentatively; after all, a modest average property has its limitations. "He just looks at me sometimes," she complains to her husband, "and then he keeps chewing." Zygmunt implies with patience earned through years of marriage that this is exactly what camels do, and neither the chewing nor the staring should be particularly off-putting. "He's so harmless," he adds, stroking him cautiously, and then makes his way to his second job of sorts, clarinet in the local orchestra. Here is where Zygmunt shows signs of distraction and confusion ("I've had a long day," he reiterates, which a joking colleague embellishes by talking about a "safari") obliging the conductor by the end of the film to demote him to second clarinet. Little by little, the couple garners an unfounded reputation for arrogance, snobbery, and isolationist tendencies – although we can't really blame their neighbors who find the whole matter ridiculous. A lucrative one-time advertising opportunity arises that could pay the couple more than Zygmunt would make in a year, provided that he be willing to invest himself with Arab garb and pose with the still unnamed camel (as for names, Zygmunt finds Pampoosh and Fuzzy too emasculating, so Ramses is suggested). After much hemming and hawing, the Sawickis decide the money wouldn't be that much of a bad idea, but the shoot predictably devolves into a debacle and Zygmunt feels bought although he's really only being rented.

One glance at the black-and-white cinematography and you would think it remarkable that this film was made in 1970s Poland (when its events take place), a good ten years before Kieślowski dramatized each of the Ten commandments separately. But the film was actually filmed in 2000, although Kieślowski's script does date from less liberated times. Stuhr, who also directed, has a demeanor about him that reminds you simultaneously of this American actor and this British-born actor of Russian stock, and, accordingly, his presence vacillates from the humorous and boorish to the philosophical and profoundly insightful. There are also a lot of secondary subplots: a lottery drawing with the winner to get a new car, the equivalent of a horse or camel; a claim that Mr. Sawicki has to pay a camel tax – which of course doesn't exist, so he is charged for a small horse; a wonderfully peaceful scene showing the camel's immense size out in the open fields; and a hearing with the Animal Humane society. All of these scenes matter and are integral to making the plot advance. But the one question that Zygmunt never seems to answer is "why do you keep a camel?" And the only response seems to be "why not?" I'm sure Maria could give us a few better reasons.

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