Flicks - Social commentary

High series focuses on recent Polish films

The Polish cinema may be relatively unfamiliar to American audiences, but for decades cineastes and critics have championed its artistry and importance. The Polish film school at Lodz has produced some of the world's most important directors — Roman Polanski, Agnieszka Holland, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Zanussi, Jerzy Skolimowski — and some of the most memorable, complex films in world cinema.

For this reason it's a profound treat to see the five recent films offered in the High Museum's Passport to Polish Cinema. The film series proves that the national cinema continues to produce remarkable, weighty films brimming with the kind of social commentary that has characterized Polish film history.

It's been more than a half-century since World War II, and the fall of the Berlin Wall was 13 years ago, but those phenomena continue to eat away at the deeply cynical Polish temperament. Despite their vision of a very contemporary Poland of cell phones and high design, all the Passport films show indications of a national sensibility permanently altered by the devastating economic, moral and psychological ripples of war and Communist rule.

In the engrossing A Week in the Life of a Man (1999) (Feb. 1), director and star Jerzy Stuhr provides a disturbing vision of modern Poland as a place where HIV-infected mothers abandon their babies in public toilets, a teenage boy kills his drunkard mother and neo-fascists brutally beat an Arab. The lines between good and bad seem clear with crusading prosecutor Adam Borowski (Stuhr) condemning such new age criminals from his courtroom pulpit. But morality has never been clear-cut in Polish film. That cinema's most important and lasting philosophical export is the moral ambiguity of the human animal, whose values are easily swayed or altogether destroyed by circumstance.

And sure enough, the same prosecutor who shakes his head at the parade of depravity through his courtroom has just cruelly abandoned his longtime mistress and commits an unpardonable act in his desire to move up in the world. Week is a typically scathing, honest — and intrinsically Polish — investigation of how pitifully we struggle with virtue and how easily, when it is convenient, we release it from our grips.

From bitter realism to quirkiness of the highest order, Angelus (2001) (Feb. 8) delights in the Eastern European love of surrealism and odd juxtapositions of religion and violence, sex and war, death and rebirth. Though director Lech Majewski's fantastic, theatrical style suggests fiction, the film is modeled on an actual "occult commune" that existed in Silesia from the '20s through the '60s.

Returning to the notorious sobriety and gloom of much of Polish film, Back and Forth (2001) (Feb. 15) is a chilling portrait of 1960s Poland, a place absolutely irreconcilable with the bountiful freedom and social protest of the Western experience of that era. The film centers on the unceasing labor of doctor Andrzej Hoffman (Janusz Gajos), who lives within a grim emotional purgatory, shuttling back and forth from his decrepit apartment where his neighbors are toothless, filthy alcoholics, to the hospital where even his skill in the operating room won't get the Communist officials off his back. But what appears to be glum social commentary soon transforms into a thriller reminiscent of 1999's East-West, as Hoffman attempts to make the boldest kind of escape from Poland in a heart-pounding second act.

Escape of a different kind obsesses doctor Tomasz Berg (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz), another typically Polish pessimist in Krzysztof Zanussi's Life as a Fatal, Sexually Transmitted Disease (2000) (Feb. 21). Berg has discovered he has terminal cancer and is eaten away, not only by the disease, but by consuming cynicism. He begins the dreadful process of tying up loose ends and paving the way for his own death, even as he curses the cruelty of the God who brought him to this. The same sense of existential despair that characterized Zanussi's unforgettable The Year of the Quiet Sun make Life brutal and unforgiving in many regards. But it's a film that also carves off a surprising sliver of redemption for both him and for us.

The final film on the Passport program, Krzysztof Krauze's The Debt (1999) (Feb. 22), is infused with the handheld camera and attractive young stars that suggest a familiar indie sensibility. Nevertheless, it returns to themes of a Poland where institutional corruption continues in a true story of criminal blackmailers who destroy the lives of two entrepreneurial young Poles who feel they have nowhere else to turn, especially not to the apathetic police.

All captivating in their own way, the films in this exceptional series inspire mixed feelings of joy at being able to sample from this most recent evidence of a rich national film culture and regret at the thought of how many other such films never make it through to our art houses and museums.