“Spoor,” from the renowned Polish director Agnieszka Holland, seems aimed at viewers hankering for an Agatha Christie mystery where Miss Marple turns out to be an animal rights advocate and men are responsible for the majority of evil in the world. Made in 2017, it’s newly available for virtual screening via the Brattle (www.brattlefilm.org) and on demand, and it’s well worth a look.
The veteran Polish actress Agnieszka Mandat plays Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman living alone in the countryside of the Kłodzko Valley, near the Czech border. Contentedly independent and scornful of interlopers, she is drawn into a mystery when her two beloved dogs disappear and local officials start dying in violent fashion.
She and we aren’t necessarily sorry to see the humans go. They include a corrupt small-town police chief (Andrzej Konopka) and the neighborhood poacher (Adam Runcinski), and you may find yourself hoping for any number of others to be next: the priest (Marcin Bosak) who assures Janina that animals don’t have souls; the fat, venal mayor (Andrzej Grabowski); a vicious village power broker (Borys Szyc) who skins foxes for their fur and abuses his girlfriend Dobra (Patricia Volny). The heroine and the film are both agreed that the world is a better place without any of them.
Holland has directed award-winning features (“Europa Europa” in 1990, “In Darkness” in 2011) and episodes of US TV shows (“The Wire,” “House of Cards”); here, working with co-director Kasia Adamik, she steers clear of and-then-there-were-none mystery cliches. Instead, “Spoor” is an eerie, wintry, sometimes bleakly comic study of a society whose devolved values are reflected in its treatment of animals, and of an implacable old matriarch pushing back with all her might. Janina’s defense of the herds slaughtered by local hunters — deer and boar, badgers and martens — can turn from fierce to strident to hysterical, which makes it easy for officials — and maybe even a viewer — to write her off as crazy. Still, when she insists that it’s the animals themselves who may be responsible for the murders, part of you may want to believe her.
The script is by Holland and Olga Tokarczuk, based on the latter’s novel “Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead” (2009), and it is generous with affection toward its main character, who actress Mandat renders with heart, fury, mischief, and the sensuality that comes from living to the fullest. “Spoor” surrounds Janina with a small but growing support system: her friend Dobra; a crusty neighbor who knows from cruelty (Wiktor Zborowski); an awkward young IT specialist for the police (Jakub Gierszal); a swaggering Czech entomologist (Miroslav Krobot). The movie suggests these people may represent a kinder alternative to our fallen world and hints that such a world may be closer than we think — with a little justifiable housecleaning.
Animal lovers stand to flinch at the hunting scenes and other moments of violence, all of which appear to have been staged aside from documentary footage of creatures fleeing from gunshots. By contrast, the movie makes a dark but compelling case that the people on the other end of the barrel deserve whatever’s coming to them.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik. Written by Holland and Olga Tokarczuk, based on a novel by Tokarczuk. Starring Agnieszka Mandat. Virtually screening via the Brattle (www.brattlefilm.org) and on demand. In Polish, with subtitles. 129 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, violence, cruelty to animals).