The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
A summertime graduate student linguistics competition is underway. Philosopher-physicist Krzysztof Zanussi’s satirical comedy Barwy ochronne (literally, Protective Colors) largely consists of exchanges between two academics, an assistant lecturer and the associate professor who presumably is trying to educate the former as to the realities of human nature and university politics—out of boredom, he maintains. The boy, Jarek, is an insufferably rigid, self-righteous soul who ascribes to notions of rules, justice, honesty, morality, ethics. These concepts, his self-appointed mentor points out, do not exist in nature. They deny humanity’s animal being and make sense only in the service of an individual’s pursuit of survival. Jakub argues seductively; Jarek parries. The similarity of their names suggests we are witnessing a dramatic translation of a debate between opposing forces in the human personality. On the other hand, Jakub’s example may predict Jarek’s own necessary evolution.
Actually, Jarek is doubly mentored, for he was hired by the school’s vice chancellor, who has put the boy in charge of the contest, although a panel, headed by Jakub, selects the winners. (Jakub claims to have ghost-written the book that launched the vice chancellor’s career.) Against Jakub’s advice (advice that may be calculated to prod Jarek to take the contrary action), Jarek allows a submission into the competition that arrived a day late—and from a student at a school of which, Jakub claims, the vice chancellor disapproves. The author of an inferior paper is given first prize; at Jarek’s insistence, the late paper’s author, “honorable mention.” When the vice chancellor hands the latter his certificate, the student bites the vice chancellor’s ear. Meanwhile, Jarek’s scholarship to London hangs in the balance.
With Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (1977), Camouflage helped found Poland’s “kino moralnego niepokoju”—cinema of moral concern. It did so sparklingly, delightfully.
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