THE BALANCE (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1974)

Released in the States as A Woman’s Decision, Bilans kwartalny—literally, Quarterly Balance, a.k.a. The Balance—is writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi’s harsh, detailed portrait of life in Communist Poland.
     Marta Sieminska (Maja Komorowska, superb) is a middle-aged accountant in a state office and a union representative, in which capacity she supports a co-worker suspected of embezzlement. The film begins with a dream of freedom; gulls fly over beach and ocean at dawn as Marta’s disembodied voice is halfway between humming and singing. This ironical opening is followed by moments of morning routine inside the Sieminska apartment. Marta and Janek, an affectionate couple, both ready themselves for work as their young son readies himself for school.
     Appearances deceive. Marta feels trapped; at home and at work, Zanussi’s mise-en-scène is claustrophobic. Marta is variously accused, including by Janek, of “do-goodism,” meddling, seeking “private satisfaction.” Her alleged saintliness constantly blows up in her face. The woman accused of embezzling tells her: “It takes courage to be a little deceptive when necessary . . . [and] to sacrifice self-esteem.” The pair is discussing Marta’s adulterous affair and her desire to choose one man or the other. Her co-worker counsels Marta to keep both husband and lover. Her hospitalized mother-in-law gives her this advice: “Act as you feel, not as you think you should act.”
     The co-worker resigns under pressure, but Marta’s showdown with their boss gets her reinstated. Marta is good at what she does. She also will be getting in the department’s quarterly report on time. This competent human being takes a lover for an unaccustomed taste of freedom. Is it guilt or refreshed commitment that brings her home to Janek?
     Meanwhile, a friend of hers is planning on marrying an American just to get out of Poland. Restricted lives; constricted lives.

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