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OUT ON VIDEO
The unacceptable cost of
(Weekend Stories, 1996-97)
Opowieści weekendowe is, perhaps, Zanussi's response to Kieślowski's famous Dekalog series in its exploration of moral dilemmas. Josephine Woll reviews its video release.
Polish film buffs, and all fans of serious cinema, will be pleased to learn of a new release from Polart—responsible for making so many Polish films available on video—and the irreplaceable Facets Video. Opowieści weekendowe (Weekend Stories), presented in this collection as a set of four cassettes, is eight short films made for television by Krzysztof Zanussi in 1996 and 1997, each film running just short of an hour. With several different cinematographers, but all written and directed by Zanussi, together they constitute his version of, or perhaps response to, Krzysztof Kieślowski's famous Dekalog (Decalogue), broadcast on Polish television in the late 1980s before achieving international success. Both directors use the medium of film to explore moral dilemmas, though Zanussi's take is—if memory serves me—ultimately far more upbeat than Kieślowski's.
As early as Zanussi's first films, Struktura kryształu (The Structure of Crystals, 1969), Życie rodzinne (Family Life, 1971) and Iluminacja (Illumination, 1973), Zanussi examined the predicaments of the Polish intelligentsia, the compromises required to get by, the deterioration of ethical and personal values pervasive in Communist Poland. In Barwy ochronne (Camouflage, 1976), the film he released in a year of industrial strikes and government-authorized repressions, all papered over by an official "propaganda of success" campaign, Zanussi explicitly contrasted the idealism of a group of students in a (seemingly innocuous) academic summer camp with the cynicism and conformity of the authorities.
During the Solidarność period, with its promise of genuine moral regeneration, Zanussi made three more films, and he continued to work after the imposition of Martial Law in late 1981, mainly in coproductions with Germany, France, the US and the UK. In the last dozen years Zanussi has been involved in efforts to restructure the film industry in Poland, heading the relatively successful Tor film unit, and in 1997 he adapted for the screen an early play by Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II), Brat naszego boga (Our God's Brother).
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The Catholic connection is not accidental and Zanussi's faith has played a strong part in his life and film-making. However, Catholicism explicitly informs only two of the Opowieści weekendowe
, "Słaba wiara" (Little Faith), in which a wife's profound faith and a husband's adamant rationalism clash over their son's illness, and "Ostatni krąg" (The Hidden Treasure), about a former Polish aristocrat, now a cleaner in Paris, who returns to her family estate and enlists the local priest's aid to find a buried treasure. However, traditional religious values underpin all of them: the golden rule, turning the other cheek, casting bread upon the waters, etc. All the films are further linked by time-frame (the present), by the repetition of the same discordant introductory musical theme—intimation of the imminent moral conflict—and by the opening shots, in which an unseen protagonist unshutters or draws the curtain back from a window and looks out onto the wider world.
Dilemmas in everyday life
The most important link among the eight films is that their heroes and heroines must make a choice between an easy, convenient, gratifying course of action, and one that, while morally correct, carries an almost unacceptably high cost. Thus, for example, a young tenor in "Dusza śpiewa" (The Soul Sings) must either take care of his voice the night before his breakthrough concert, or risk disaster by going out into a miserably rainy night to help an elderly neighbor. We can easily appreciate his reluctance, just as we can understand the siren song of vengeance that tempts the protagonist in "Damski interes" (A Woman's Business) when she sees on television an old enemy who has risen as high in the "new" market-oriented Poland—and probably by means just as ruthless—as she did in the old Party-dominated one.
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Zanussi (like Kieślowski) situates these moral dilemmas in the domain of ordinary life: all of us, he implies, face similar quandaries. In the most effective of the eight films, the impulses toward egoism and selflessness plausibly conflict within one character, rather than being externalized too obviously in protagonist and antagonist. This blunts the impact of, for example, "Niepisane prawa" (Unwritten Law) where an attractive married chauffeur drives a high-powered and venal businesswoman (played by Krystyna Janda), who tempts him into bed. Janda's character, impeccably groomed and coiffed, with a swimming pool on her property, behaves like such a stereotypical tough bitch, and moreover looks too much older than Piotr Szwedes to be convincingly alluring, that the hero's quandary—to tell his wife and the victim of Janda's dishonesty, or to accept sexual recompense for his complicitous silence—is less compelling and persuasive.
For a couple of Zanussi's protagonists, such as the heroine of "Damski interes," virtue is its own reward: they simply feel good when they opt for the moral rather than the selfish choice. In the case of Jola, the young woman in "Ostatni krąg," she laughs with sudden liberation and strides confidently into her future. But in the best of Opowieści weekendowe—to my mind, "Dusza śpiewa" is the stand-out, with "Linia opóźniająca" (The Dilatory Line) not far behind—Zanussi uses a light hand to gift his protagonists with a happy ending, the one they deserve for making the right choice but one they could not possibly have foreseen when they actually made the choice. (Though the plot twists are not really mysterious, better not to reveal them.)
Opowieści weekendowe tries to grapple with the ethical issues underlying everyday choices. It helps to know something about Poland's recent history, but it's not necessary, for these issues transcend geographical (and linguistic) boundaries. Combining serious moral purpose, tight writing, good acting and skillful direction, Opowieści weekendowe is a treat.
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