The end of the Cold War that the U.S. had launched to the detriment of the world after the Second World War has left the world changed in some ways and intact in others. Writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi’s Persona non grata revolves around Wiktor (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, superb yet again), Poland’s aging Ambassador to Uruguay, where he finds his nation competing with the Russians for a helicopter contract, suspects Russian spying, quarrels with fellow Polish diplomats, and quarrels with his own past. His anti-Sovietism has finally prevailed, but Wiktor still suspects old friend Oleg (fascistic filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov giving a marvelous performance) of having bedded with his deceased wife, Helena.
The film opens with haunting snapshots of Helena. If I am to believe reviewers I have read over the past few years, Helena and Wiktor had a serenely happy marriage, the loss of which, executed by her death, has been tragic for her widower. Really? Yet Wiktor must go to Poland to attend her funeral, implying that they were probably estranged (it is possible she was on holiday, I suppose), and Wiktor’s confrontation with Oleg over possible long-ago adultery suggests the suspiciousness with which the marriage had become infected, perhaps explaining the estrangement. Once back in Montevideo, Wiktor tries enlisting a priest to safeguard Helena’s ashes, and he interestingly remarks how Helena’s unexpected death left important matters unresolved between them. Am I alone in thinking theirs was not the happiest of marriages?
Ironically, Wiktor is viewed by peers and superiors as a Cold War relic. The only “person” he seems to trust is his old, faithful dog, Hippolyt. He drinks to excess to assuage his loneliness.
He earns my affection, however, when he refers to lyric LXVIII of poet Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam (“Sleep, Death’s twin-brother . . .”).
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