Writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi’s early Illuminacja is autobiographical. Its protagonist, Franciszek Retman, is a graduate student in physics because he wants to know, he tells the university interviewing board, “things that are certain, unequivocal.” Zanussi himself studied physics at the University of Warsaw. But things changed for him. He proceeded to loftier intellectual ground, studying philosophy at the University of Kraków. Finally, he studied film at the Lódź Film School and became Poland’s greatest filmmaker. His “illumination,” the wisdom he attained as “an enlightenment of the mind” (St. Augustine), required the redirection of the course of his life. We see this reflected in Retman’s experience. I do not know, however, whether Zanussi suffers (or suffered) any such serious heart disease as afflicts Retman. Indeed, the disease may be metaphorical, an index of awareness of vulnerability that comes from knowing that important, human things are not “certain, unequivocal.”
The two principal events that transform Retman are a turbulent romantic relationship and the death of a friend during their mountain-climb. But something else floats in and about: the responsibility of scientists that they are loath to embrace. Zanussi has stated: “The scientist is more interesting than anyone else as he is more responsible for the world than the usual people one finds in movies.” Yet early on Retman remarks, “I don’t feel responsible for the A-bomb,” on the ridiculous grounds that he hadn’t participated in its invention. Another student, though, wins their argument by exposing Retman’s evasiveness, self-absorption, self-delusion: “But [the inventors] were physicists, too.” Retman’s journey, then, is in the direction of responsibility. Those who climb mountains, as Zanussi’s masterpiece, Constans (1980), reminds us, must return to earth, one way or the other.
Most decisive for the brilliance of Zanussi’s Illumination is the form he has given it. It’s a mosaic, a kaleidoscope of pieces in which one set of snippets of film sometimes is interrupted by another set of snippets. This “piecing together” opposes viewer complacency so that even those of us who are intellectually inferior to Zanussi—and that includes all but one person I’ve known or met*—are compelled to approach his film in an intelligent, mentally active way. One cannot “go with the flow” when there is no flow.
Zanussi was at the christological age when he made this terrific movie—when a boy (according to Christian myth) becomes a man. Illumination is full of wit. At one point Retman interrupts his contemplation of cosmos to have his palm read. His motive is devious: he is curious to see how inaccurate the palm reader will prove herself! She tells him that he doesn’t like himself. She is saying this to a most self-satisfied creature. But, of course, Zanussi’s prick of wit eventually turns around and aims itself at the boy, whose self-satisfaction has been an evasion, a delusion.
Hacks do not spare others. Artists do not spare themselves.
* René Girard
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