DVD. Mr Bongo Films.
eight years after his masterpiece The Saragossa Manuscript,
director Wojciech J. Has here comes up with another film that
blurs reality and time, but does so in a much more extravagant
way. The result is a film that is less about narrative coherence
and more a series of bizarre, quirky events. It’s also a
work of extraordinary visual flair.
The story, for what it is worth, sees Josef (Jan Nowicki) visiting
his dying father at a crumbling, ridiculously vast sanatorium
in the polish countryside. Leaving the train (manned by a blind
conductor and seemingly populated by lost souls), he makes his
way through the ravaged countryside and finally arrives at the
gothic building, where the doctor tells him that his father is
dead – at least in the outside world. Here, time is reclaimed,
and his father remains alive – for now. Soon, Josef too
is moving through time and seemingly space, as he follows a young
boy out of the building and finds himself experiencing a series
of surreal encounters and experiences with people he knew, places
he had been. Like Alice in Wonderland, he seems trapped in a spiral
where every encounter only leads to more confusion.
The viewer too will find this confusing, especially if you try
to make sense of it – in fact, doing that would be foolish.
This is more an experience than a coherent film, and it’s
best to simply join Josef in his increasingly confused, strange
world. Because of that, it’s certainly not for everyone
– if you’re the sort of person who frets over plot
holes in movies, you’ll certainly hate this. But that would
be your loss, because there is a lot to admire in this film.
is, without question, one of the most visually impressive movies
I’ve ever seen (and is here presented in a gorgeous restored
edition). Not only does every shot look like a gorgeous, carefully
composed set-piece, but the film manages to move though time and
place seamlessly, giving a dream-like fluidity to the events,
which could have easily been jarring. Sets, costumes, lighting
and camerawork are all remarkable. Nowicki is one-dimensional
enough to act as a conduit between events – ironically,
a more charismatic actor couldn’t hold a film like this
together. And the combination of horror (the opening scenes in
the sanatorium are genuinely creepy, with an atmospheric score
by Jerzy Maksymiuk that is that match of any horror soundtrack),
childlike innocence and Fellini-esque eroticism makes for quite
a potent visual brew.
Admittedly, the film eventually feels rather slight – the
recreation of the pre-war Jewish ghetto might ground the film
in a regretful nostalgia for Polish viewers of a certain age,
but for others it might just feel like another part of the cacophony
of events driving the film. But there is substance here; it’s
just not narrative substance. That’s not a bad thing.
Fans of Terry Gilliam’s more unfettered flights of fancy
or the works of Jan Svankmajer will feel at home here, as will
admirers of Bunuel and freewheeling European arthouse cinema.
Michael Bay fans, less so. Choose your side now!
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