Krzysztof Zanussi position as Poland’s moral cinematic conscience is presumably the one he was playing up to for his latest film, Foreign Body (2014). Best known for films that betray her fierce intellect – a la Camouflage (1977) or The Illumination (1973) – this is an entirely different kind of prospect. Imagine, if you will, a psycho-sexual thriller involving high-powered business women, nuns, and a naive Italian Romeo. Now imagine such a film but with every hint of mirth or eroticism stripped and replaced with po-faced allegory. Various national maladies regarding the church and commercialism are also thrown into the mix. If it all sounds like something of a mess, then you’re forming a fairly good picture.
Angelo (Riccardo Leonelli, pictured right) is the hunky foreigner that arrives in Poland hot on the tail of his great love, Kasia (Agata Buzek). She’s inexplicably decided to devote her life to Christ and her devastated man – spurred on by her equally nonplussed father – has taken a job near the monastery at which she’s a novice in order to talk her around away from the holy light. At his new energy company, however, Angelo finds himself pitted against the wits of his domineering superior, Kris (Agnieszka Grochowska), who brandishes power liberally to get precisely what she wants. If that can somehow involve a riding crop or humiliating a lowly subordinate, than all the better for it. Whilst the conflicted Kasia frets over her life-hanging commitment, a valuable contract looms large that Kris will stop at nothing to secure.
Foreign Body opens to the golden hews of a rural Italian idyll, highlighting the distinctly colder and bluer corporate world that Zanussi has his sights trained on. Lensed by Piotr Niemyjski, the film has an unappealing visual aesthetic that arguably complements the mannered performances. Particularly when they communicate in English – their shared language – conversations are jarring and fail to carry the metaphorical weight that is presumably intended. The major problem is that besides the most obvious condemnation of both big business and organised religion inspiring selfishness and disillusion, it’s difficult to glean exactly what Zanussi wants to get across. He plays with themes such as sexual politics and power through the relationship between Kris and her assistant. He hints at the sins of older generations through Kris’ dying mother’s prior life as a communist executioner. For all the humiliation, double-crossing and clandestine religious orders, Foreign Body remains a joyless and obtuse affair, the value of which is buried as deeply as the ominous secrets of Poland’s past.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson