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Most of us, perhaps, have happened to stop for a while in the rat race that our lifestyles force on us nowadays and think about the gist of living. Although life goes by quite quickly, such moments occur valuable for us and the older a person is, the more of such reflections appear. In Poland, my country which is also the homeland of Krzysztof Zanussi, the film's director, the best opportunity for such a pause is November, the month that begins with prayers for dead people when late autumn and the empty trees remind us of passing, of fading, of death. As a matter of fact, that is the very essence of our existence and no matter how painful that may sound, everyone faces the reality that death is. The key question is: what is the human attitude towards that death? Krzysztof Zanussi took enough courage taking up a difficult task of the sort and made this movie which appears to me as a very accurate work highlighting the most important and thought provoking aspects of life. However, it also appeared to me as an experience. Why?
The best thing about this movie is, in my opinion, the fact that it does not contain one linear story but rather focuses on "idea" on something that we all have in common no matter where or when we live: fear of death. The story begins with the scenes set in the Middle Ages at the times of St Bernard. These first 10 minutes of the movie direct our attention on Christ-like figure on a donkey (St Bernard) who rescues a criminal sentenced to strangulation by offering him penance in the monastery. In the fear of death, he is ready to take any burden in order to stay alive. Later, when it occurs that the story of St Bernard is only being filmed, the action takes us to our times and we get to know, so to say, the main character of the movie, a doctor Tomasz Berg (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz) who has a cancer and is aware of having little time left in this world... But is there another world? Who cares of us here? What is God up to if he exists? How to spend this little rest of life one is left? Is there a point in helping others when one oneself suffers so badly? Finally, how to cope with death? Those are the thoughts that absorb him and that we experience with him. This story of his is divided into two periods of illness: the first being pain of his will and mind, the second being pain of his body.
Those thoughts are supplied with memorable scenes with Tomasz Berg wonderfully portrayed by Zbigniew Zapasiewicz. We see his growing suffering in loneliness. Although he meets lots of people and talks to them, their opinions, reactions occur unendurable to him. Their views on life as merely money, fun or outer morality make him alienated in this world. The thoughts of Tomasz badly shout: You are alone in your suffering! It is him who alone stands at the bank of Seine River in Paris meditating the end of life; it is him who alone sits in a café depressed to the very core struggling the darkest nights of heart; it is him alone who decides to give aid to the ill people who are on the same boat like him. Tomasz occurs to be the character who, similarly to the criminal of long ago, struggles to live by any means but is bound to surrender in the final battle. I liked the scenes he contacts his ex wife Anna (Krystyna Janda) and tells her in such a straightforward way about his problem calling his flesh "rotten" and her current husband his "successor". She occurs to be a sort of haunting shadow of his past that he wants to atone for. At the same time, there comes a young couple whom he advises to take the joys of life and gives them his flat. Tomasz's visit at the monastery is also worth deep attention...
Similarly to life, therefore, the film is built upon moments and each of those moments has a feeling, has a depth that a viewer can develop and see in their own way. The music by Wojciech Kilar is truly brilliant combining two major concepts, two Ms: Meditation and Melancholy. That soundtrack really moved me and helped me enter the mind of the main character. Here, when analyzing the artistic features of the movie, I'd like to concentrate for a while on performances. As aforementioned, Mr Zapasiewicz does a brilliant job portraying a fading man and giving us a memorable insight into the psyche of such a person. Krystyna Janda is also terrific as his wife Anna, a lady who is also ready for sympathy at the face of deadly illness. The couple, Monika Krzywkowska and Pawel Okraska, though a bit unexperienced, also do pretty fine jobs.
If you asked me if it is worth seeing this movie, I'd put it this way: if you are a sort of viewer who does not mind melancholy, reflective mood, the film is for you. You will not regret. If you are, however, very sensitive and easily depressed, you had better wait for a better moment to see it. I ended watching it being filled with meditation on my chair and I would like to share some of my thoughts with you. Perhaps, after seeing the film, you will find something meaningful in the following:
There is foremost an existential question: what is life? Is it a sexually transmitted disease, a peck of dust in the universe of mortality? Is it a misery that lasts for a while and passes like a feather in the wind? Or is it rather a miracle, a sublime chance of being like a little bird in the church that Mr Berg visits; a little bird that flies towards the Risen Lord...
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