It has been for the second time that I had the pleasure of contributing a booklet esay to a Second Run DVD release, after I had written about Andrzej Wajda's Innocent Sorcerers (1960) last year. This time around, my piece is on Krzysztof Zanussi's Illumination (1973). You can purchase the DVD here; I include some excerpts from the essay below:
A fiercely cerebral inquiry into the nature of happiness, truth and knowledge, Illumination (1972) was Krzysztof Zanussi’s third feature film and remains to this day his most adventurous one. Epic in scope yet extremely fragmented – told in jumps and starts – it aims at nothing less than presenting an essence of a life, while remaining as detached from it as possible. It won’t be until Peter Greenaway’s The Falls (1980) and Alain Resnais’ Mon oncle d’Amerique (1980) that narrative cinema will again come as close to resembling a gripping scholarly essay.
Illumination belongs to the most fully realized period of Zanussi’s career. After more than a dozen shorts (which included a loose Catcher in the Rye adaptation in 1961), two feature works and the 1971 TV-film masterpiece Behind the Wall (that could rival early Mike Leigh in its improvised feel), Zanussi arrived at Illumination as a thirty-three year old director of international reputation. All his primary concerns are here, just as they were first revealed in his supreme debut feature, A Structure of a Crystal (1969): focus on characters belonging to the academia, the question of validity of intellectual pursuit, adversity to portraying sex, constant sublimation of desires into the realm of the cerebral. (It’s no coincidence that Franciszek Starowieyski’s striking poster for Illumination represents a figure whose brain has exploded outside its skull and proceeds to feed on itself.) Profoundly moral and deeply non-erotic, Zanussi’s cinema treats the body as a vessel for the mind: note the detached way in which Retman’s sexual activity in Illumination is quickly intercut with shots of ancient statues frozen forever in their stony coitus. In the world of Zanussi, a body truly is nothing but a mortal coil – and his ruminations on death will result in one of his best films, The Spiral (1978).
Brilliant, multilingual, well-mannered and well-spoken, Zanussi has successfully created a persona that made him as many friends as enemies. There’s a great ambivalence at the core of the Zanussi phenomenon, for he somehow managed to come off as both conservative and avant-garde: a flamboyant fuddy-duddy if there ever was one. Smiling his wide smile and exuding easy telegenic charm, he’s in fact extremely reserved and alienating to young Polish audience, which he often scorns for its love of “empty” pop culture. And yet one look at the formal inventiveness of Illumination – not to mention Camouflage (1977), the most brilliant expose of Communist feudalism ever put on film – reveals an artist of great subtlety of vision. Even if his later films, such as Open Heart (2008) in which postmodern philosophy is represented as literally lethal, can be irritating in their tone of moral superiority to the audience, Zanussi still produces complex, searching work like Persona Non Grata (2007).
As for Illumination, it remains a great testimony to a way of life that is first and foremost philosophical. Franciszek cannot help but treat the reality around him in all seriousness – it’s as if he couldn’t allow himself to be happy until the mystery of the universe will be cracked. Until that happens, he’s in limbo: dipping into the world now and then, dabbling in his so-called life, but essentially detached and existing in a self-imposed exile. It’s significant that in the final scene of the movie (often mistaken for an exhilarating coda just because of its faux-bucolic setting), Franciszek is once again separated from his family, as he contemplates the river with wooden debris flowing down the stream. For all the differences in tone, Illumination would make for a perfect double bill with Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man (2009) – another story of a bespectacled prisoner of life who longs to love the world but would like to understand its paradoxes first.