Crime and Punishment (dir. Piotr Dumala): unusual and subtle animation no substitute for lack of plot and unsatisfactory resolution

Piotr Dumala, “Crime and Punishment / Zbrodnia i Kara” (2000)

The style of animation associated with Piotr Dumala is unusual and often emotionally intense: using plasterboard painted in black under a camera, he scratches white lines with a needle and creates drawings with considerable line-hatching to achieve a 3-D effect and subtlety in mood and changes of mood. By necessity at times, there is a strong emphasis on negative shapes and outlining, shading of characters and objects, shadows and night-time: overall, a suitable background context in which sinister, almost unconscious events can take place away from the public gaze. The look of Dumala’s films can be fragile: characters appear to be sensitive, existentially tormented people and objects, even buildings, seem impermanent in keeping with the animator’s aim to present the unsteady inner life of his main student character before and after the crime he commits.

“Crime and Punishment” is very loosely based on the original Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel. Although the film short in itself is technically accomplished, its plot is very weakly developed: it builds up quite slowly to the central student character’s killing of the old woman and her sister and thereafter falls apart. No attempt on Dumala’s part to portray the student’s internal anguish and guilt over killing the two women, no young woman to offer comfort to the student (and in so doing, add to his turmoil as he wrestles with his conscience) and an anti-climax in which the student finally gives himself up to the authorities, is tried, convicted and banished to several years’ hard labour in a Siberian camp … all this completely disappears. It becomes obvious that the novel serves mainly as inspiration for Dumala’s own superficial version in which animation artfully demonstrates emotion and changes in emotion; the film is little more than an unusual art film. In this version, the student anti-hero appears to be tempted or provoked by an older man, who may or may not be Satan in disguise, to carry out the crime; the student later feels remorse, some depression and loneliness and is driven to kill himself. There is not much character development here and viewers won’t feel much sympathy for the student. Given that Dumala by 2000 had nearly 20 years’ animation experience, the lack of a definite story narrative, whether linear or not, is a complete disappointment. While Dumala is at liberty to reject large chunks of the Dostoyevsky novel as it suits, by throwing out most of it he has ended up with a story that is banal. A man takes his time agonising whether he should dock a horrible woman, does so almost by accident and spends the rest of the film feeling guilty

The pace of the story is slow and much attention given to the slightest of movements which reflect internal emotional states; eyes and faces in particular are rendered finely and sensitively, and have a very sharp sculptured appearance. No dialogue appears and the whole film is carried by a piano-dominated musical soundtrack. The city landscapes are spooky: there’s no hustle and bustle on the streets, horse-drawn carriages are uncommon and people, on crossing a bridge over a river, make gesticulations and other movements that suggest they might throw themselves over the edge of the bridge! All the splendid artwork Dumala does here is a mind-boggling labour of love: I can’t imagine his particular style of destructive animation readily lends itself to quick, easy work – but his obsession with his form of animation means he neglects the film as a story-telling vehicle.

“Crime and Punishment” could have been a very great film indeed if Dumala had drawn more inspiration from the novel and maybe developed the film short’s plot further so it includes redemption or at least an attempt to reconcile the families and connections of the student and his victims.

 

 

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