Order means a continuous battle with chaos.
Writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi’s grave, mysterious Zycie jako smiertelna choroba przenoszona droga plciowa revolves around Dr. Tomasz Berg (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, tremendously moving), who is dying of lung cancer, casting him in double roles: doctor, patient; observer, one who experiences; nonbeliever (“ . . . grace has bypassed me”), yet one poised to receive the Holy Spirit. A bird he sees fluttering underneath a painting of Jesus in a Paris church returns to Berg’s Warsaw hospital room—if a dream, perhaps a dream from God.
The film opens, Buñuelianly, in the past—here, the twelfth century. St. Bernard takes a young horse thief to his monastery, converts him and returns him to be hanged now that he is ready to die. Suddenly the present cuts into the past; what we have been watching is a film shoot-within-the-film, with Berg the on-location medical doctor. His own situation echoes that in the film. Berg, too, must ready himself for death.
Slow camera movements suggest life poised for its passing. When the thief rides to his execution, the camera gently lowers by the archway under which he passes—an expression, perhaps, of God’s sorrow over human fates as a consequence of the Fall. A beauteous insert evokes an identical sadness: a river’s solemn passage beneath a tree.
“Do you find it a problem dealing with death every day?” a second-year medical student, an extra working on the Bernard film, asks Berg. They come from different worlds, as we see: Filip, a believer, in his period costume; the old atheist in his ordinary modern clothes. But they become dear friends, with the boy making the first incision in the cadaver that Berg bequeaths to his teaching hospital.
Life goes on. Like a river.
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