Published August 1, 1998
Polish Wedding, written and directed by Theresa Connolly is a relentlessly life-affirming story about a Polish family in Hamtramck, Michigan, which undergoes in its own lovably ethnic way several family crises of a sort that sometimes happen to non-Poles too. The incongruously Irish-looking Gabriel Byrne plays Bolek, the paterfamilias, who is being cuckolded by Jadzia (the Swedish-looking Lena Olin) with Roman (Rade Serbedzija), a businessman whom she sees under the pretext of attending meetings of the Polish Ladies’ Auxiliary. Bolek is a rather mousy baker who prefers not to know what his wife is getting up to at night; Jadzia herself an improbably glamorous cleaning woman. She works with Sofie (Mili Avital), the wife of their eldest son Ziggy (Daniel LaPaine) and mother of their only grandchild, whom Jadzia helps care for. Sofie comes in for a lot of abuse as a “Gypsy” though she insists she is Syrian (“Same difference,” says mom).
There are three other sons and one unmarried daughter, Hala (Claire Danes), who is fooling around with the local policeman, Russell Schuster (Adam Trese). Hala, like her mother, is seeing more than one guy, though she is chosen by her fellow Catholic youth as leader of a procession in honor of the Blessed Virgin and therefore one who is presumed to be a virgin herself. Not altogether surprisingly, she finds herself pregnant by Schuster on the eve of the parade and is ashamed so publicly to announce her non-virginity. At the climax of the film she leads the procession of virgins anyway, is denounced from the crowd as a pregnant virgin, and, when the priest tries to prevent her from continuing, defiantly crowns herself rather than the statue of the virgin. As she walks away, the crowd steps back to let her pass, many of them kneeling and crossing themselves.
It is not clear whether Hala’s bigoted and ignorant co-religionists think she is the Blessed Virgin or whether they are warding off the devil, but we can guess which view Ms Connolly inclines to. The scene is a little too pat, a little too ham-handedly symbolic, even if its message were more congenial. Others, however, are more successful. I particularly liked the one in which mother and daughter-in-law toast their first born children. First Sofie says: “Without him, Ziggy wouldn’t have married me.” Then Jadzia toasts Ziggy himself, her own eldest, for “without him, Bolek wouldn’t have married me.” The two then look together to Hala. She knows what she has to do. She puts on Sofie’s wedding dress and goes to confront Russell at home.
It is not an unfamiliar Hollywood paradox that such celebrations of heart-warming ethnicity come accompanied with a slap at the religion which gives it its distinctive tone and coloring. Even when, as in Polish Wedding, the film manages to look with a certain indulgence of spirit upon traditional views of sex-roles, marriage and child-rearing (“She makes babies, I make bread,” says Bolek of his wife) as they have been preserved in such ethnic enclaves as Hamtramck, there is no room for similar indulgence towards a 2000 year-old church. Instead, one supposes, Ms Connolly’s faith is the same as that of her earth-mother heroine, Jadzia, who tells Bolek, her grandson in her arms: “Nothing is more sacred to me than this. Making life and love, that’s my religion.”
It’s a form of pagan religion you don’t have to be Polish to practise, but better, I suppose, than its streamlined daughter-church, the religion of just making love.