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Next up in the ongoing feast of restored Polish masterpieces currently underway at the Brattle — courtesy of Martin Scorsese, under whose auspices the series is touring a circuit of cinemas around the country — is Krysztof Zanussi‘s ILLUMINATION, a key work by one of Poland’s most interesting directors of the 1970s and beyond.

The film’s centrality in his canon derives from its autobiographical character — Zanussi’s life paralleled, in some important respects, that of ILLUMINATION’s protagonist, Franciszek Retman. Both studied physics at university, but both fell away from it over time, as their attraction to theoretical abstraction — their desire for and belief in universally applicable answers to the Big Questions — gave way to a fascination with the particularity (and peculiarity) of individual lives, bodies and brains, along with the proliferation of relationships among them. For Franciszek this meant shifting from physics to biology (and, not unrelatedly, family); for Zanussi, of course, it eventually led to film.

ILLUMINATION’s narrative is simultaneously simple and fractured, or fragmented, consisting of passages from Franciszek’s life — his studies, a failed love affair, a successful love affair, a marriage, a child — intercut with documentary-style footage about scientific matters, including interviews with actual scientists, illustrations of various concepts, and so on, the contents of which align with developments in Franciszek’s progress. From expositions on the Big Bang and cognitive mapping we move on to etiologies of schizophrenia and rap-sessions about the ethics of scientific practice. It’s all pretty heady stuff, and Zanussi — a gifted practitioner of visual phantasmagoria — gets the weirdness across with a vividness that never effaces the very human poignancy at his story’s center.

At his story’s limit, though, is the question of illumination itself — the possibility and promise of a mental clarity so perfect that it allows for unmediated access to the Real. Franciszek seeks it in science, but also in mysticism and experiences of the sublime. Stanislaw Latallo, the cinematographer who played the part of Franciszek, was introduced to mountain climbing while making this film, and he became obsessed with it. It provided, for him as for many others, something like illumination — an unmaking of boundaries, an erasure of the line separating being from perceiving — during the following two years, before he died climbing.

Brattle Theatre
40 Brattle St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
$10 GA // $8 Student

Part of the Ongoing Series — Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema

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