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The template of underdog sports movie established by Rocky is now such a cinematic staple that it’s easy to forget just how tuned in Stallone’s classic was to the human spirit. This becomes apparent when a true story slots neatly into that framework. Breaking the Limits is just such a story. This biopic of a Polish sporting legend features every trope and cliche you could think of, but it’s an engrossing, inspiring piece.
Jerzy Górski (Jakub Gierszal) is a young man in the throes of drug addiction causing chaos on the streets of Głogów in the late 1970s. The story follows twelve years in his life from the brink of self-annihilation to the personal glory of winning the Ironman World Championship, a psychotically gruelling triathlon that typically takes more than a day to complete.
What makes this telling of Górski’s life more interesting is the particularly Catholic outlook Palkowski brings to the film. It’s easy to find religious parallels in a redemptive story, but Breaking the Limits is rich in this symbolism. Jerzy’s switch to athletics is the swapping of one type of bodily mortification for another. His road to recovery is adopted with the fever of a zealot with a hair shirt. Palkowski isn’t subtle in some of this symbolism – at one point Jerzy literally clambers from an open grave – the moment signalling his lowest point and spiritual and physical rebirth. There’s even a hint of stigmata in a wound he sustains in the race.
This religious aspect works well alongside the more rational surface issue of addiction and the standard metaphor of personal demons; nicely illustrated as Jerzy’s former junkie self heckling and occasionally attacking him through mirrors. It’s as if Dorian Gray was attacked by his own disintegrating portrait. These are effective moments of both psychological and body horror and hones the film’s harder edge that its occasionally tough subject matter provides.
Other aspects don’t work quite as well, even if they are true to Gorski’s story. His burgeoning relationship with nurse Ewa (Kamila Kaminska) is summarily dealt with, as is the introduction of a daughter born during his dark days with a former girlfriend (Anna Próchniak). It’s more interested in the various masculine tensions in Gorski’s life, from his swimming coach who is himself unable to swim, to a Polish government official who happens to be his dead girlfriend’s father.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the central story, as most non-Polish viewers undoubtedly will be, there are few surprises to be seen in Breaking the Limits. It’s not even the best story of its kind, the very similar Iron Man drama 100 Meters is more satisfying overall, but Palkowski’s drama is effective, contains a charismatic central performance, and is undeniably rousing.