If all of life is a beautiful equation, then madness is re-running it over and over with the expectation of a different outcome. This is the cycle that young idealist Witold (Tadeusz Bradecki) finds himself entrenched in during The Constant Factor (1980), Krzysztof Zanussi’s withering critique of corruption in Communist Poland. Unlike his other two lauded films that screen this week as part of the 13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, it forgoes gymnastics – formal in Illumination (1973) and verbal in Camouflage (1977) – in favour of a more straightforward, but no less thematically rich, drama. Captured in cold hues, it subdues intellect in favour of a more poignant personal narrative.
In a similar sense to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s much more recent Leviathan (2014), Witold is a lone man hopelessly resisting the crushing weight of his political circumstances. He provides the eyes through which the Polish society of the late 1970s is viewed – and judged – as he swims against an overwhelming tide of bureaucracy and moral redundancy. This comes both in the form of professional entanglements and obstruction of aid for the deteriorating health of his mother. He thrives on his sense of indignation – “Big shots can’t be allowed to take advantage of their position. It’s anti-democratic. And unethical” – but it is ultimately what drastically changes the course of his life and while Zanussi clearly empathises with his position, The Constant Factor does not give his obdurance a free pass.
The title refers to an element in an equation that remains the same regardless of the shifting variables around it. For Witold that is the corruption of the world around him. When his mother is hospitalised, his upstanding demeanour and condemnation of her doctor – who is on the make – guarantees that she is left in a drafty corridor rather than given a more comfortable room. At work, he refuses to condone colleagues skimming off expense accounts and even raises the matter with unmoved superiors. Witold could turn a blind eye, protecting his own conscience but submitting to societal pressure, but when he won’t life becomes problematic quickly. “You have to accept the world as it is,” a friend tells him. “That’s maturity.” Maturity may, in fact, be something Witold is in pursuit of. Since childhood he has harboured the dream of going on a climbing expedition in the Himalayas – where his father fell to his death when Witold was but a boy.
Obstacles are perennially placed in the path of this goal and it is, perhaps, the act that would ignite his realisation. Slawomir Idziak’s visuals evoke the snowy cold with a chilly aesthetic and a camera is a little more restful that in some other of Zanussi’s films from this period. Alive when it’s rattling down a ski slope in the directors inimitable style, Idziak also manages to pick out the hidden geometry of scenes before intimately following Witold’s journey. Mathematics and raw intelligence are sidelined a little more than in some other works, but this is still another scientifically astute Zanussi lead, whose naivety proves as touching as it is debilitating. With faith, guilt, love, greed and sacrifice all woven throughout, The Constant Factor may not be the most flashy in Zanussi’s catalogue, but it’s still a hell of a show.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson