Jeremy Podeswa's Fugitive Pieces dives deep from the get-go, immersing itself in the scarring emotional terrain of World War II-era Poland. A young boy, Jakob (Robbie Kay), hides in a secret wall in his family's home as he watches Nazis kill his parents and take away his older sister, Bella. Hours later, after the sun has set, Jakob walks past his father's dead body and out into an undetermined, forever-altered future.
Frail and dirty, Jakob is soon found by a Greek archeologist who spots the boy shivering in a pile of leaves. Athos (Rade Sherbedgia), himself grieving over the loss of a loved one, smuggles the child to his home in Greece where he slowly brings the quiet, polite Jakob back to health.
The pair eventually relocates to Toronto, where Athos takes a teaching position -- and where Jakob begins to find his own voice.
Podeswa's narrative toggles back and forth between Jakob's childhood and his adult life as a talented writer (an impressively restrained but annoyingly coiffed Stephen Dillane) who can't help but put his haunted memories to page.
"I try to bury images, to cover them up with distractions," Dillane says in one of the film's many lyrical voiceovers.
One such distraction is Alex (Rosamund Pike), a beautiful, vivacious woman Jakob meets and quickly marries. Yet it's not long before his true, corrosive nature can't help but drive her away.
"Here comes Alex again, her boundless vitality invading my solitude," he writes in a journal entry that she eventually uncovers.
Jakob only truly comes alive within his writing, which contains deep wells of feeling absent from his human relations. His thoughts are rarely far from his parents and sister, whom he persistently, obsessively evokes in his writing.
"It makes your brain explode," Alex blurts out during a diner party with friends, "his obsession with these details (of the past)."
Tired of competing with relics, Alex leaves. Jakob, resigned to his fortress of solitude, moves back to Greece, where he can concentrate on his writing. Only when a young museum curator appears years later, seemingly out of nowhere, does he begin to craw out of his emotional hole -- she brings to mind his late sister -- a turnabout that comes as a welcome relief even if it seems an implausibly fulfilling finale.
Based on Anne Michaels' novel of the same name, Fugitive Pieces is a moody tone poem dedicated to how guilt and memory can pervade one's every thought. Womb-like in its insularity, cinematographer Gregory Middleton's lush visuals predictably alter with each shift in time and place -- Greece is impossibly picturesque, while Poland is a dour shade of slate -- but effectively evoke feelings of nostalgia. And Nikos Kypourgos' subtle score is just as tastefully rendered.
Podeswa -- a Canadian whose resume includes both film and TV credits -- does his best to bring alive a story largely locked within the mind, but too often we're left to luxuriate in Jakob's ceaseless desolation. Melancholic to the point of being inert, Fugitive Pieces might be best left on the page. Grade: C+
Opens June 20 at the Mariemont Theatre.