As the early morning mist clears, a circus is seen departing. Remaining behind, standing alone in a field, is a large camel, its two ungainly humps creating a landscape all their own.
In short order, the camel wanders to the home of a middle-aged couple, the Sawickis, who adopt the big animal–feeding it, taking it for walks. In a Polish village, needless to say, the beast attracts a good deal of attention. The town photographer wants the camel as a way to drum up business, but Sawicki isn’t interested in selling. The tax clerk doesn’t have a category for camels, but a tax must be charged, no? So Sawicki pays the tax for a horse.
Gawkers and mischievous children start to plague the Sawickis. But they have grown fond of the camel. Sawicki plays his clarinet and the camel sings along; Mrs. Sawicki laughs with pleasure.
Jerzy Stuhr has created a near perfect fable from a script by the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colors Trilogy; Decalogue). Into small-town lives comes this completely exotic and very big animal. Its presence elicits the profit motive from some, the bureaucratic instincts of others, and, in time, the anger and hostility engendered by the human difficulty of dealing with that which is different. The animal becomes "an unwanted sensation," it "befouls the streets, distracts the children, and may carry strains of African V.D.!"
It takes a very precise touch to make a premise like this one fly. First and foremost, the animal must be appealing and Stuhr has found a simply amazing camel possessed of a certain je ne sais quois–an aloof, if ungainly, dignity. (Its chest brims with a luxuriant growth of hair that makes some in the town covet the warm coats that might be made of it.) And when the beast starts to sing with the clarinet, it seems eminently reasonable that this childless couple would become attached to it. It’s the kind of creature that seems to stimulate all who meet it to project onto it their own needs.
Secondly, Stuhr, blessed with an observant and witty script, keeps it all gossamer light; the foolishness is pointed and on the satirical mark, but angst-free. Each incident is given just enough time to convey its idea before the story skitters on to the next. The tone, like the music on the sountrack, is minor key–tuneful, spirited, but with an undercurrent of bittersweet.
Handsomely photographed, the black-and-white palette adds a timeless, classic element. The acting is excellent all around, though only Stuhr, starring as Sawicki, gets enough time on screen for more than a cameo impression. Stuhr the actor (with a long list of acting credits before he started directing) serves Stuhr the director well, hitting the right tone of rationality here, irritation and bewildered resentment there, all bouyed by gentle good spirits. At a short 73 minutes, The Big Animal is wrought with elegant economy, avoiding what must have been a temptation to extend it to commercially standard length.