Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the film The Peasants.

“Love comes and goes, but land stays.”

It’s not exactly the kind of advice a girl expects from her mother on her wedding day. But this is late 19th-century Poland and we’re in a traditional agrarian village where farmland is coveted and marriages are brokered; where men and women till the soil and provide grist for the gossip mill in equal measure; where peasants drink vodka like it’s water, work themselves to the bone, and dance together till dawn; where the cycle of the seasons and the liturgy of the Catholic Church bind the people together and bear them ceaselessly into a future that looks very much like the past.

Because the land stays, the village stays, and only those who root their lives into this “holy soil” will flourish. Anyone with their head in the clouds is headed for trouble.

Beauty in the Painful and the Sordid

What is it like to be just one part of a larger whole, especially if the priorities of the whole differ from your own?

The Peasants (Chłopi in Polish) is a 2023 animated historical drama written and directed by married filmmakers DK and Hugh Welchman. The movie is an adaptation of Władysław Reymont’s Nobel Prize-winning Polish novel which was published in four volumes (Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer) between 1904 and 1909. As a native Pole, DK Welchman read the novel in her teens, but it wasn’t until she listened to it years later, while painting frames for her first film Loving Vincent (2017), that she felt stirred by the story. This time around, “it touched me much more deeply,” she said. “[I]t’s literally like something painted with words, and [I] thought it’d be the perfect opportunity for our painted animation style.”

Jackson’s Art Blog

The Welchmans’ painted animation style is one-of-a-kind: working in studios in Poland, Lithuania, Serbia, and Ukraine, 125 oil painters recreated 40,000 frames from the live-action shoot while 100 digital painters made another 40,000 frames using Photoshop. At about five hours per frame, this would have taken one person a century to accomplish. Unlike traditional rotoscoping, however, these artists weren’t tracing over motion picture footage; they were painting on canvas from scratch.

Władysław Reymont was a member of the “Young Poland” modernist movement (1890 – 1918): the style of the book and the paintings from that era are realistic, with hints of impressionism and romanticism. The Welchmans borrowed explicitly from this tradition for their animation, including 36 direct (visual) quotes in the film of Polish paintings, alongside other well known works including Millet’s The Gleaners (1857), Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), and Van Gogh’s Noon-Rest from Work (1890), creating a sensation of aesthetic déjà vu.

Although the film is animated, it’s not for children, earning its “R” rating with adult themes, brutal violence, course language, full-frontal nudity, sexual assault, and sensual scenes whose eroticism isn’t obscured one bit by the fact of having been painted rather than photographed. I was reminded of philosopher Roger Scruton’s words: “Real beauty can be found even in what is seedy, painful, and decayed. Our ability to tell the truth about our own condition… offers a kind of redemption from it.” Art can describe what is sordid in words and images “so resonant of the opposite, so replete with the capacity to feel, to sympathize and to understand, that life in its lowest forms is vindicated by our response to it.” The shortcomings, failures, and brutality of the peasants are framed by a kind of beauty that feels like the possibility of forgiveness.

Film Storm

This beauty is not only seen, but heard as well. The score, composed by Łukasz LUC Roskowski, and performed by nearly 100 musicians from Slavic countries, is a combination of Polish folk music, trance, classical, and Slavic mysticism music made with traditional instruments, such as fiddles, tubas, accordions, and singing. The music exemplifies the predominant cycles of peasant life—agricultural and liturgical—which are further reflected in the film’s many dance sequences full of spinning. The Peasants portrays life within a circle that repeats traditions and subordinates the rites of individual human lives into a broader cosmic and sacral dimension. The love and the lives of particular peasants may come and go, but the land and the village endure.

“Do you think I have a say in it?”

What is it like to be just one part of a larger whole, especially if the priorities of the whole differ from your own? This is the situation of The Peasants’ protagonist, Jagna (Kamila Urzędowska), a young woman of striking beauty, artistic dreaminess, and indifferent work habits. She is often caught gazing out a window or lying in the grass looking up at the clouds, and she skillfully turns what she sees into delicate paper cut-outs that decorate the walls. 

But there is no such thing as a “single female artist” in the agrarian village of Lipce, and Jagna has reached peak marriageability, turning the heads of Lipce’s single (and married) men while eliciting envy from other women. She garners a reputation for promiscuity on top of her reputation for laziness; whether deserved or not, it’s hard to say, though most local gossip contains a grain of truth.

The older women talk of marrying her off, but Jagna wants to remain at home with her mother while simultaneously making eyes at a man in church—Antek (Robert Gulaczyk), a married father whose hunger for Jagna is matched only by his hunger for land. Antek’s father, Boryna (Miroslaw Baka), is a wealthy widower recognized as the village’s influential “first farmer.” Boryna, who expects his adult children to work for him like servants but won’t give them any land ’til he’s dead, is prevailed upon by the village’s women to propose to Jagna. Her mother negotiates the deal: six acres of Boryna’s best farmland for the girl’s hand. An old flame, Mateusz (Mateusz Rusin), sees that Jagna is being “sold like a heifer on market day” and tries to talk her out of it, but she is resigned: “If [my mother] tells me to, I will. Do you think I have a say in it?”

Shortly before her engagement to Boryna, Jagna enters into a torrid affair with Antek. Their connection is one of passionate sexual compulsion, not love. There is as much codependency and cruelty in their outdoor furtive couplings as pleasure, and the affair continues even after Jagna marries Boryna. Father and son predictably come to blows over Jagna and the land, and Antek is sent away, though even this fails to end the affair.

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When Boryna leads the peasants in a rebellion to protect Lipce’s rights, he receives a severe head injury and Antek winds up in prison. The women are left to run the farm themselves, a task to which Jagna is particularly unsuited. Most of the labor is performed by Antek’s wife, Hanka (Sonia Mietielica), a hard-working, pious woman who represents everything Jagna is not. Shortly before his death, Boryna hands over his money and farm to his daughter-in-law Hanka, insisting she boot his unfaithful bride from the house.

“I’ve had enough help from men already.”

After a few miserable months of marriage, Jagna, now a widow, returns to her mother. The village’s married mayor gets her drunk and sexually assaults her, but the villagers blame her for “being a whore.” When Antek returns from prison and seeks her out, Jagna realizes he has done nothing but publicly disgrace her. She rebuffs him, and then—in a stark departure from the novel where Jagna succumbs to passion again willingly—Antek rapes her. Men responsible to help Jagna instead helped themselves to her body.

Sensing Jagna’s vulnerability to sexual predation and vicious gossip, her old beau Mateusz offers his protection through marriage. “I don’t need help from men,” she sighs, leaning her weary head on his shoulder. “I’ve had enough help from them already.” But when she stumbles upon Lipce’s handsome young priest-in-training walking in the woods, and the two are spotted chatting together, a spark is lit which explodes into violence. (The film presents Jagna as a victim of rumors, while in Reymont’s novel she forgets Antek in her new infatuation with the priest and nearly succeeds in seducing him.)

The priest’s outraged mother and the mayor’s humiliated wife rouse the villagers against Jagna. The one woman who actually has just cause for resentment—Antek’s wife, Hanka—doesn’t participate, having left on a pilgrimage. The villagers’ bitterness over the misfortunes and injustices of the past year are redirected at Jagna, the scapegoat whose artistic eccentricity and moral faults, combined with false rumors, make her the perfect target. 

In guilty cowardice, Antek (who goes unpunished) sides with the group: “I live in the village; I stand with the village. You want to expel her, then expel her… It is all the same to me.” Only Mateusz stands between the mob and the girl he loves, but he’s no match for them. They spit in Jagna’s face, drag her out by her hair, and beat her. They strip her naked, tie her up, and toss her into a dung-filled cart. Shouting abuse, they carry her out of the village and dump her—bloodied and fragile—into the mud. Rain pours down, washing away the filth, as she slowly rises and walks away.

Jagna exiled (YouTube)

What We Owe One Another

Reconciling the priorities of a community with the preferences of its individual members is a perennial problem. Justice demands we ask what the community owes the individual, and what the individual owes the community. What are my rights and what are my responsibilities? Neither makes sense without the other, yet the community and the individual are commonly pitted against each other in practice.

Reconciling the priorities of a community with the preferences of its individual members is a perennial problem.

The village understood what responsibilities Jagna owed them: do your fair share of the work and don’t be a free-rider; get married and add children to the community; and for heaven’s sake, don’t threaten marital fidelity by sleeping around. Jagna broke the rules and the community couldn’t survive continuous, uncorrected promiscuity, so they put a stop to it.

Reymont’s novel ends with Jagna recovering in bed in her mother’s home, chastened and no longer a threat to the village, which returns to balance, health, and humdrum. She couldn’t change her location, so she had to change herself. By contrast, the film ends with Jagna walking off alone and naked to… somewhere? It’s ambiguous enough to make you think she’s going to start a new life on her own in a new place, which is utterly unrealistic for the time period but suits modernity’s mobility, weak ties, and tendency to wipe the dust of the past off our feet.

In our current culture, it’s much easier to change locations (whether city or church), and so we seldom have to sit under the community’s pressure to shape up: we simply move on. That’s the downside of modernity, but the upside is that we understand what rights the village owed Jagna: to let her remain unmarried or to marry the man of her choosing; to respect the use of her artistic gifts; to protect her from sexual assault and seduction; and to let her learn from her youthful mistakes without the threat of violence.

Jagna failed the village, and the village failed Jagna: who deserves more sympathy? The Welchmans turned a thousand-page novel into a hundred-page script, excising ninety percent of the story. The resulting tale resembles the original, but shifts the locus of blame to make the moral of the story more palatable to modern audiences.

In the novel, Jagna is swept along by her impulses into choices that are communally destructive. Reymont sympathizes with the village’s need for stability (it’s called The Peasants after all, not Jagna), while maintaining compassion for Jagna’s youth and vulnerability. The movie, however, favors Jagna with less sympathy for the village’s norms and limits. The Welchmans’ adaptation has a #MeToo sensibility that largely absolves Jagna, undermining the fact that most of the gossip about her promiscuity and free-riding is actually true.

Such leanings—of the past towards communal responsibilities, and of the present towards individual rights—are no surprise. The discrepancy convinced me that the movie should be watched and the book read in tandem, to prevent us from imagining our moral “progress” over the past. We aren’t better than peasant communities which stigmatized rule-breakers: we just value mobility over accountability, and we have a different set of rules that makes heroes out of non-conformists and paints disruption as a virtue.

This perspective was bequeathed to us by the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, modern liberalism, and America’s founding mythos. We are liberty-loving rebels who threw off the shackles of a tyrannical monarchy; we are conscience-driven Luthers who took our stand against a corrupt papacy; we are 1960s “lifestyle revolutionaries” whose m.o. is not preservation of the good but protest of the bad (i.e., “sticking it to The Man”). Community and custom will always be suspect in a culture whose motto is sic semper tyrannis: in our cynicism, we mistake justifiable limits imposed on individuals for the sake of the Common Good with unjust power exercised for private gain (the definition of tyranny).

My pastor once advised me that I should attend not to what I fear most, but rather, to my blind spot. If I’m already aware of something, how much harm can it do me? The greatest danger is the invisible one, which is often the flipside of what garners all the attention. Our culture is obsessed with individual freedom and terrified of losing it. In our blind spot is the life of communal connectedness and relational obligation which has been disintegrating for centuries, and which cannot exist without limiting personal freedom.

The Slow Death of Community

Seeing the cruelty with which the village shunned Jagna (a practice which is thankfully rare in modern westernized democracies and which all of us can immediately recognize as horrific) made me wonder about the inverse: about the way our protection of individual differences at all costs strangles our capacity to commune. It’s easier to see and stop the mistreatment of a fellow “part” because we exist at the same scale: it’s much harder to recognize the mistreatment of a “whole” which comprehends us and whose dissolution occurs across generations. There is no shocking moment of violent catharsis to witness, and yet we are collectively disintegrating—the trade-off of our choice to make sure that what happened to Jagna won’t happen again. (At least not physically: the rise of digital scapegoating or “canceling” is worthy of its own essay.)

Our culture aims to protect us from being abused like Jagna, but the cost of more freedom and less stigma is fragmentation.

Communities are dying a slow death of attrition at the hands of expressive individualism. This is death by a thousand cuts. Each emotional and practical tether is snipped privately one ghosting at a time, one estrangement at a time, one cross-country move at a time, one divorce at a time, one job change at a time, one screen-filled night at home alone at a time, one more reframing of selfishness as “self-care” at a time. We might even think it’s normal to be lonely, unable to find a partner, estranged from family, or with more online than “in real life” friends.

Our culture facilitates a frictionless life rather than a connected life: the invisible hand of the Market turns relational obligations into jobs and commodities so we can be separate, private, and free. “Inconvenience” is a euphemism for having to relate directly with others in person. “Efficiency” is a euphemism for cutting people out of the equation, community death by a thousand apps.

Our culture aims to protect us from being abused like Jagna, but the cost of more freedom and less stigma is fragmentation. Rootedness makes immorality socially costly, but we have been cut loose. Wendell Berry writes (in words that capture the world of The Peasants),

If the word community is to mean or amount to anything, it must refer to a place (in its natural integrity) and its people. It must refer to a placed people. A culture capable of preserving land and people can be made only within a relatively stable and enduring relationship between a local people and its place. …For an authentic community is made less in reference to who we are than to where we are.

It seems impossible now to live within a local, permanent, interdependent, self-regulating community in which our presence really matters. Not only does the economy disrupt this, but such a life would feel intolerably “inconvenient” with all of its interruptions, obligations, consequences, and limits—the friction of other people in “meatspace” where bailing out is not an option. Our moral muscles have grown too flabby for such heavy lifting. We end up forming disembodied internet “communities” of unplaced people who like what we like and appreciate who we are, but don’t live where we are.

The modern subject of liberalism—that is, the autonomous individual who is “free” (i.e., rights-bearing and bound only by self-chosen obligations)—is a useful fiction given to us by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.1 It protects individual self-interest and guards those who buck social custom, but fails miserably when it comes to the maintenance of relationships. What if the cost of “being yourself” without compromise means you end up being by yourself? Does the need to “be me” always get to trump the need to belong?

The dismantling of communities of custom was no accident. John Stuart Mill, a founding father of liberalism, wrote in 1859 that “society has now fairly got the better of individuality, and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.”2 Mill believed the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom was a service to humanity:

Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric…the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.3

This idea has made us victims of its success. Our chief danger now is the opposite: normalcy is a reproach. To be a maverick, to be queer, to be your “true self,” to have your unique identity hallowed by society—this is the new normal. “Traditional” has become a slur, and rebellion (once a tool of justice) is cherished for its own sake.

What can we salvage from pre-liberalism’s communal virtues while still treating the Jagnas among us with dignity and grace? We have to solve this before the common experience of we is irretrievably dissolved into a million solitary me’s, or into internet-fueled identitarian groups—a reactionary form of nostalgia—that are growing as a dangerous compensation for the death of local communities.4

Christ as Scapegoat and Bridegroom

The Gospels depict Christ at the roiling intersection of the community’s moral standards, the rule-breaking individual, and the scapegoat. Christ showed special concern for those communally rejected over sin or sickness. He placed himself between a woman caught in adultery and the men who sought to stone her (John 8:1-11). He spoke at length—alone—to a promiscuous Samaritan woman (John 4:1-45). He honored a “sinful woman” who washed his feet with her tears and hair before sanctimonious onlookers (Luke 7:36-50). He ate with tax collectors and sinners who were socially despised (Mark 2:15-17). He healed lepers (Mark 1:40-45) and the demon-possessed (Mark 5:1-20), restoring the “unclean” to both health and social communion.

Christ enters into the tension between the community and its non-conformists by becoming a scapegoat himself.

Divine restoration (“Take heart, your sins are forgiven,” “Your faith has healed you”) comes, however, with an injunction: “Go, and sin no more.” The grace of Christ, while it washes sinners clean, isn’t a moral pass: Christ combines heartbreaking tenderness with unbearable sternness.5 The Bible is replete with instructions that set community standards. As “many parts” we are baptized into “one body” and therefore suffer and rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Our personal passions may cause us to quarrel, covet, gossip, and judge, but Christ calls us to humility (James 4:1-12), to look not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others, to be of the same mind and have the same love (Phil. 2:1-18). Christ’s bride, the church, is not an individual but a communal—and therefore inescapably moral—reality.

Christ enters into the tension between the community and its non-conformists by becoming a scapegoat himself. The Holy identified with the unholy, and let himself be cast out like refuse and crucified by an angry mob. He did this “so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-33). Christ died so that God’s people, biblically symbolized as an unfaithful wife, would repent and return to His love—not so that they would be free to go their own way with impunity. 

Orthodox and Catholics present this mystery of the intertwining of Christ the Scapegoat with Christ the Bridegroom through iconography: Iesoũs Christós ho Nymphíos (Christ the Bridegroom coming in the night) and Ecce Homo (“Behold, the Man,” Pilate’s words as he presented Christ to the crowd). St. Augustine wrote, “Like a bridegroom Christ went forth from his chamber…He came to the marriage-bed of the Cross, and there in mounting it, he consummated his marriage.”6 The moment of Jesus’s violent rejection is simultaneously a nuptial self-gift: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… ‘the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5). The Peasants “quotes” these images in its scapegoating scene as Jagna, who had been wearing a red dress until it was stripped from her, looks directly at the viewer with her bloodied face and haunted eyes, as Christ does below (scroll up to see her again).

Christ, the victim of the community, becomes a self-offering for the community. He doesn’t pick a side between the one and the many (though plenty co-opt Him for the purpose of “sticking it to The Man” or for rubber-stamping group homogeneity). Christ reconciles the individual and the communal by giving us the grace to become virtuous: only by loving as God loves can we act justly and give one another what we owe. No political or economic system can do this for us, as if we could create justice and virtue structurally without having to become just and virtuous personally.

Not the Same Mistakes

There are many places to find oneself within The Peasants—as the one in the grip of greed, gossip, envy, anger, lust, laziness, or cowardice or as the one who suffers from the sins of others. Most of us are a mix of both. This Nobel-prize winning story—beautiful, brutal, mesmerizing, and sordid—is worthy of being both watched in its painted glory and read in its poetic prose. (All four volumes can be read for free on the Internet Archive.) C. S. Lewis cautioned us that the only way to overcome the characteristic blindness of the present is to,

[K]eep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.7

Today’s mistakes pertain to this relationship of the individual to the community and the way communities flourish. The Peasants, like all classic literature, doesn’t tell us what the solution is, but rather creates a world that makes us feel the ways we are getting this right, and the ways we are getting it wrong. “Our ability to tell the truth about our own condition… offers a kind of redemption from it.” Seeing ourselves and our sin with the compassion that a beautiful framing of it affords is the first step.


Footnotes

  1. The social contract theorists’ conception of human beings is fictional and false because it imagines us in an independent, autonomous “state of nature.” Apparently, such humans must have sprung up from the ground overnight like mushrooms: real humans are born as helpless babies, dependent on their mothers (who are dependent on other adults for help). The fundamental human reality is that we are dependent on relationships we did not choose—not that we exist autonomous and free. Liberalism is thus parasitic upon relationships of dependency that people need in order to thrive, but that the philosophy itself ignores (and over time, degrades). ↩︎
  2. John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, John Troyer (2003). “The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill”, p.197, Hackett Publishing. ↩︎
  3. Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty (United Kingdom: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1869), 120. ↩︎
  4. Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: Revised and Updated: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (India: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 401. ↩︎
  5. Vanauken, Sheldon. A Severe Mercy: A Story of Faith, Tragedy, and Triumph (New York: HarperCollins, 1977), 94. ↩︎
  6. Augustine, Sermo Suppositus, 120:3, cited in Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told by Brant Pitre, 93. ↩︎
  7. Lewis, C.S. Introduction to On the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei by Athanasius (United States: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 5. ↩︎