The Illumination – A Little Life

16 October, 2020

What is it that attracts us so much to Polishman Krzysztof Zanussi’s films from the seventies? It’s maybe the fact that, by aligning himself to the general current of a „cinema of moral anguish” that had become the norm back then in Poland, he still shows us something that we are not really used to see: a world composed of academics (who are usually experts in physical sciences) that chips apart in front of our very eyes, revealing both its most noble and, especially, most rotten cores. Zanussi is the kind of person who sees a tiny failed Einstein in each of his characters, and who is willing to climb the steep way up their individual biographies in order to understand what went wrong, in order to pinpoint the precise moment in which that potential was laid to waste. In his cinema, a dialogue regarding the mysteries of the universe, between two men with receding hairlines and dressed in white lab coats, is not at all pedantic or ridiculous; in his case, a dialogue about advancing one’s university career, seen as an unfair power play, has become a sort of an inevitable trope.

One must especially see the way in which Zanussi approaches the question of romance in his films. Stripped of any kind of slimy auras, love in The Illumination (Iluminacja), his 1973 feature that snatched the top prize at Locarno, is little more than a distracting nuisance: believing otherwise means offering it too much importance. Love is much rather a stain in the background: when lead character Franciszek (Stanislaw Latallo) finally remembers that he is a husband and a father, after a mystical cleanse, we get an interesting outburst from his wife, who throws his clothes and books into his arms and then slams the door right in his face. Then, in the next shot, she is ravaged by tears, while he stares on with a repentant look, clueless as to how he might escape this situation. Because in such situations, Zanussi’s illustrious protagonists seem to be at a loss for words: they’re simply confronted by a dark corner of their lives, which they haven’t often visited. There’s no need for more really, and maybe this is exactly what the grandeur of the Zanussiesque mise-en-scene, the least „melo” of them all, is built upon: onto the fact that just a few somber shots are more than enough to categorically throw the lives of people, who are much too orderly, into disarray. All the contemporary directors that flex their muscles by flooding stunted and cheesy scenes with music, snaps and over-the-top effects, in the hopes of obtaining even the tiniest bit of counterfeit emotion, should watch Zanussi’s films.

The Illumination

The Illumination is a film that uses around 90 minutes to present 10 years in the life of a man. These are decisive years in the life of an aspiring physicist, just as a graph indicates that productivity in the field decreases with age. Zanussi doesn’t simplify anything and charts every single aspect: professional successes, a spiritual quest, and numerous failed attempts at making peace with his family life. The only thing is that, instead of simplifying, Zanussi shortens: a maestro of the art of ellipsis (and Pawel Pawlikowski’s most recent films fall under his incidence), Zanussi uses flashbacks to offer us an undiluted version of events. If it’s true that life indeed flashes on our mental screen right before we die, then – based on what I have seen in The Illumination – I think that this review film should be directed by Zanussi as well. It’s remarkable that almost no moment throughout the film seems grandiose, of a Hollywodian ilk: we see bits and pieces of discussions (many of them technical, professional), we see – as if in a concentrated version of the Structure of Crystal, his previous feature, in which two friends meet up in the countryside and discuss philosophy – trips made in the company of long-haul friends. We even see a meeting with a former lover, which is turned away in a very Zanussian fashion: the woman clings to the back of Franciszek’s neck, he forcefully rips himself away, then cut – we will never see her character again, to the very end.

Maybe it’s even more interesting that, in fact, such moments are not quite as arbitrarily chosen as they seem: all of them contribute to the construction of a complex web which slowly encroaches onto Franciszek, obligating him to face a series of tough decisions, uncomfortable choices and to confront, again and again, personal and professional compromises. What remains beyond these events is a sort of existential sludge, in which our character can be known and recognized in the entirety of his human vulnerability. Few films offer a higher degree of privileged access into the torturous and tortured conscience of a man, without falling into the traps of cheap psychologism. I’ll never grow weary of observing the breaches that lie behind this completely materialistic view on existence that Zanussi seems to passionately cultivate (in contrast to one Kieslowski), only to play tricks on it on every single occasion: just take a look at Franciszek, a man as seemingly pragmatic as one can be. Zanussi’s craft as a screenwriter is there to show us that, even in the life of this man who seems destined to succeed and to be on the straight path to an illustrious career, something, at one point, goes wrong, and the straight line turns into an infernal loop. His directorial art is there to take care that such intimate flashes are captured by the camera. I truly enjoy the scenes in which a subtle kind of reverie seems to creep its way into Franciszek’s gaze, trickling a bit of unquantifiable truth into this figure of a much too balanced man. The entire effort of creating such a film is then offered an answer from out part: because we will never truly be able to penetrate the mystery of a character that is too slippery to fit the frame of a normative plot, but at the very least, we will try to get as close to him as we can get.

A selection of Krzysztof Zanussi’s films is available on MUBI.


Avatar Victor Morozov
Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for the Dilema veche cultural magazine and collaborates with Acoperișul de Sticlă, Film Reporter, Ziarul Metropolis; enrolled in a Film Studies programme at Trinity College, Dublin.