Life Feels Good (Chce sie zyc)

Poland (2013) Dir. Maciej Pieprzyca

When making a film about people with disabilities it is alarmingly easy to be overly sentimental to the point of patronising or wilfully ignorant about the conditions for the sake of a good story. Therefore, the best films are the opens that avoid these pitfalls and present the disabled as people who need understanding rather than pity.

Based on true events and told over a span of over twenty years, our central figure is Mateusz, diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy at birth. Beginning in 1987 Mateusz (Kamil Tcakz) is the youngest child of a loving family, whose relationship with his father (Arkadiusz Jakubik) inspires him the most and makes him feel normal, while his life education comes from watching his neighbours across the way.

In 2005 after his father passes away, an older Mateusz (Dawid Ogrodnik) is proving too much of a handful for his mother (Dorota Kolak), that he is put in a home for the mentally disabled, based on an early misdiagnosis suggesting he can’t communicate with others. Yet through the attention and support paid by some of his more thoughtful carers, Mateusz is keen to prove his diagnosis wrong.

Aside from reminding us rather poignantly and sensitively that disabled people are still people, writer-director Maciej Pieprzyca also takes this opportunity to show us the progress made with the diagnosis, treatment and understanding of disabilities. It is quite the sobering realisation that as recently as thirty years ago attitudes, both professionally and socially, towards the disabled were still so primitive.

Granted the improvements and development in technology have helped pushed the medical world forward in great leaps and bounds, but the sense of disappointment from seeing the attitudes reflected which should have been dead and buried in the 1950’s still being prevalent is hard to shake. It might feel like deliberate manipulation for sympathy – and it works – yet it is a key factor in Mateusz’s journey.

The fact the initial diagnosis of Mateusz being totally mentally impaired was so readily accepted by his parents may be indicative, not just of the period but also the family’s working class status. Had they the financial means and were higher up on the social ladder, they may have been aware enough to seek a second or third opinion. However, the only person who didn’t recognise this was Mateusz himself.

His father was able to ignite flames of curiosity in Mateusz through his tall tales and handy skills around the house and in his job. A little like his older brother Tomek (Tymoteusz Marciniak), later to join the Navy, Mateusz isn’t treated any differently by his father to Tomek or his elder sister Matylda (Helena Sujecka), the least caring of the family.

Mateusz develops internally like any other child, and even figures out how to move by himself away from his wheelchair by wriggling across the floor, and has a mischievous mind. By his teens, he notices girl’s breasts and affords himself a sneaky good look when he can. This amazingly bags him his first girlfriend in studious neighbour Anka (Anna Karczmarczyk) until she moves away.

Once in the mental hospital and while it is a far cry from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest there are traces of the haughty attitude of Nurse Ratched in some of the staff, including the usual rough handling type taught by rote as to how patients should be treated and how they should react. This is true for most patients but those who can’t speak back endure it the most.

Via internal monologues, Mateusz expresses his dismay at this, cursing the ignorance towards his obvious need to sit up when being fed and not laying on his back. He bites his lip to get their attention, drawing blood so they remove his front teeth to make him desist. An empathetic young female volunteer Magda (Katarzyna Zawadzka) arrives and instantly recognises Mateusz’s attempts at communicating, forming a bond with him that her superiors frown upon since it undermines their programme.

Another doomed romance for Mateusz but it is the first vital step towards him being able to get noticed and that his apparent fits and aggressive actions are in fact his way of expressing himself and be heard from inside his unwieldy and uncooperative physical form. As Magda so incisively deduces, a simple look or glint in Mateusz’s eyes is saying something be it a reaction or a statement, but no-one is intent on listening.

It’s fair to say that Pieprzyca isn’t demonising the Polish health system at all; there is no room in the narrative for such thickly spread opprobrium. The scenario is there purely as a challenge for the indomitable drive and human spirit of persistence within Mateusz to overcome. A mirror is unquestionably behind held up reflecting how society views the disabled but that is all it is doing – any emotions engendered are our own.

When thinking of the great portrayals by able-bodied actors of disabled people, it is usually Daniel Day-Lewis or recently Eddie Redmayne who spring to mind first, with equally superlative turns in world cinema largely ignored by the masses – Korea’s Moon So-ri in Oasis is a perfect example. In portraying Mateusz both Kamil Tcakz and Dawid Ogrodnik deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the above.

Not only are their physical contortions and spasmodic movements utterly realistic, both actors maintain a clear consistency and continuity throughout, convincing us they are indeed the same character after the time jump. Both also suffuse their essaying of Mateusz with a cheeky glint in his eye and a steely determination, but most of all with humanity and dignity.   

Life Feels Good is a defiant and provocative title for a film that superficially looks to evoke a sense of pity from its audience, but instead presents a tale of hope, determination and understanding. The real Mateusz appears during the end credits and his spirits are noticeably high. QED.