The post-war years begat a period of enormous creativity across European cinema and Krzysztof Zanussi’s Illumination (1973) stands out as a prime example of the incredible Polish craft of the time. It’s a profound and cerebral ride through the life of Franciszek Retman (Stanislaw Latallo) in his never-ending quest for enlightenment bulging with tremendous formal dexterity. Kick-starting a particularly fertile and inventive period in Zanussi’s career, the film is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, exploring humanity with cinéma vérité-style drama, pieced together with photographs, interviews and diagrams; transfixed by the marriage of science and art.
Opening on some initial footage of a lecturer defining ‘illumination’ as the moment of discovering truth, the film introduces its protagonist through what will become trademark breakneck cutting and minimal overt explanation. Franciszek would like to study Physics in Warsaw as he would like to learn things which can be known unequivocally. A gangly scientist with an insatiable thirst for enlightenment, Franciszek’s aptitude may prepare him for success in the lab but knowledge flows thick and fast outside it. Difficult lessons are to be learnt of romance and grief, especially after a stormy love-affair which obeys no indisputable laws. Filled with unconventional editing that constantly keeps the audience on their toes, Illumination is an intricate tapestry that demands close attention.
There’s no easy narrative flow to be swept along by even when Franciszek meets, weds and has a child with the sweet Agnieszka (Monika Dzienisiewicz-Olbrychska). His studies may thusly be compromised, but his longing for – and pursuit of – higher understanding remains. All the while, just a jump-cut stands between a slice of narrative coherency and an unexpected aside that may perhaps discuss the morality of science in the wake of the atomic bomb. Everyone seeks balance in their lives, and it hits hard to witness this particular eternal struggle borne out by the inner turmoil of one academic. Its complex structure, visual style and bold editing mean that Illumination is not going to be a film that all viewers are able – or perhaps, more importantly, willing – to fully buy into, but those that do will be thoroughly rewarded. A rich examination of the human condition inventively exploring the everlasting conflict between intellect and passion, Zanussi’s film is an absolute triumph that feels no less pertinent and urgent today as it would have when it was first released.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson