SPIRAL (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1978)

Mesmerizing and deeply affecting, Polish writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi’s Spirala so closely attends to a single character that it evolves into a spiritual as well as psychological portrait of the young man. Tomasz Piątek, although he hasn’t booked a room, enters a ski resort. He behaves enigmatically, accosting other guests with rude, personal remarks and interrupting their conversations. One such encounter finds him calling a pregnant stranger “selfish” because she hadn’t asked the child she is carrying whether it desires birth. We later learn that Tomasz is dying from illness, that his visit to the resort is part of his suicidal plan. His attempt to die amidst the snowy slopes, however, is foiled by an official, expensive effort to rescue him by helicopter. The second half of the film finds his life waning, after a year, at a hospital.

For the most part, resort, mountains and hospital—the film’s three settings—are exceptionally quiet locations; a mediating point between life and death, the mountains could be described as being eerily quiet as well as eerily beautiful: one atypically gorgeous deep blue shot of one of the slopes at night—the cinematographer is Edward Kłosiński—hints the unearthly realm of an afterlife. The closing shot, which returns to mountains, but “mountains” on the “other side,” clarifies in “sunlight” the intimation of eternity in the earlier shot. Tomasz, also in the closing shot, seconds earlier rolled off a hospital window ledge to his death—another gracious, wonderful shot. Challenging the continuing weakening of his physical condition, it is an ultimate act of self-determination only days before his medically projected end. The irony is devastating: Tomasz, alone on the mountain, completes the implied portrait of a lonely, alienated life—one steeped, as it were, in the modern condition. Thus the closing shot also refers back to a vivid earlier shot: that of Tomasz standing outside a room at the resort in which a crowd of guests are having a sociable celebration. It is one of the few bursts of noisiness in the film, but, Tomasz, alone with himself, cannot enter in and join the festivities, as perhaps he never could, more generally, in his past.

Jan Nowicki, who is excellent as Tomasz, endearingly resembles Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Zanussi took the prizes of the ecumenical jury at Cannes and the critics at the Polish Film Festival.

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