Thursday, April 20, 2017

Blindness requires leaps of faith to fully enlighten (film review)

Seek and ye shall find?

Blindness (Poland, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Auteurs program
- Ryszard Bugajski, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Maria Mamona, Malgorzata Zajaczkowska, Jansuz Gajos, Marek Kalita

A confession: I had not seen any of Polish auteur Ryszard Bugajski's films prior to checking out his speculative drama about a real-life Stalinist era government interrogator.  Still, I had heard about his critically acclaimed The Interrogation, which was made in 1982 but banned by the Polish government until after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc seven years later, and is infamous for what its lead character (and actress, who went on to win the Best Actress prize at Cannes in 1990) was put through.

Although Blindness switches the focus from tortured to torturer, I must admit to expecting to have to sit through a similar amount of visually punishing scenes.  This time around though, my sense is that the pain is often much more mental than physical, and sometimes even imagined rather than real too -- with the film's lead character, a middle-aged woman who has a variety of aliases as well as nicknames (including "Bloody Luna"), now coming across more like a victim-to-be rather than someone with the upper hand, and a whip in that hand to boot.

One day in 1962, Julia Prajs Brystgier (who's portrayed by the director-writer's real-life spouse, Maria Mamona) goes to a facility in the country maintained by the Catholic church to seek a meeting with the Primate (Mareka Kalita), Poland's most senior clergyman.  An atheist -- or at least agnostic -- Jew, she nonetheless professes to seek salvation through Christianity, wanting dearly to emerge from the darkness after realizing how blind she had been to such as Communism's failings and the wrongs she herself committed in its name earlier on in her life.  

At what turns out to be a center for the (physically) blind, Julia first meets up with Sister Benedicta (Malgorzata Zajackowska), a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and Father Ciecorka (Jansuz Gajos), a priest blinded by former colleagues of Julia, who -- as her Bloody Luna nickname attests -- drew quite a bit of blood and induced pain when she worked for Poland's notorious Ministry of Public Security.  The conversations she has with them -- and also, eventually, the Primate -- provide an interesting window into her tortured soul. 

They may feel on the stagey side but the at times political, sometimes metaphysical one-on-one discussions that Julia has with these other strong personalities alternately intrigue and educate.  In contrast, the film's dramatic stagings of certain events from Julia's damnable past and hallucinatory imagination tended, to my mind, to confuse matters and over-complicate the story.  In particular, the inclusion in the work of a torture victim who had identified himself as Jesus Christ looked to have overly-mystified things and made it all harder to believe.

Even while I understand that a filmmaker has artistic license to be imaginative, it seems to me that in the case of someone like Julia Brystgier, there needed to be few embellishments to make her story an arresting one.  Actually, after reading about this personality post viewing the film, the sense I got was that if Blindness had depicted more of what actually is known about her and her deeds, it'd actually disturb and devastate more.  As it was, like with Oliver Laxe's also religious-themed Mimosas (which I viewed earlier on in the Hong Kong International Film Festival), its scenes that required leaps of faith tended to lose rather than enlighten me.
My rating for the film: 6.0

No comments: