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An eloquent, moving film that hints at a still better one
We open in the Middle Ages, with what turns out to be a genuine mediaeval story of St. Bernard and a horse thief. The 12th-Century setting is well realised, Wojciech Kilar's music is lovely, the story draws us in quickly; all in all, it's as promising a beginning as you'll see anywhere. Then someone yells "Cut!" and it turns out that none of it was real. We'd merely been watching the film-within-the-film and, even though the material sounds even more intriguing when people in the film talk about it afterwards, we won't get to see another frame of it.
I groaned inwardly. Who could fail to be disappointed to see Zanussi trade a beguiling legend from the distant past for something contemporary, ordinary and altogether more earthbound to see him trade a timeless parable for something that merely refers to one? Yet he was only following two of the three ironclad rules for making nested works of art, which is more than most directors do; and the third is mostly a matter of luck anyway.
When making a film-within-a-film, the rules are these:
(1) The nested film should be good as good as it is possible to make it.
(2) The actual film should, of course, also be as good as it is possible to make it.
(3) The actual film should be better than the nested film.
It's easy to fall foul of (3) just by doing one's best to follow (1) and (2). At least Zanussi doesn't make the all-too-common mistake of holding back on the nested film, deliberately making it worse than it need be so that his own film will look better by comparison (a ploy that never works, anyway). As it turns out, "Life as a Fatal, Sexually Transmitted Disease" is a gorgeous, moving film, and we should not resent it (not that it's likely that anyone will resent it; I certainly didn't) simply because it teases us with a glimpse of an even better film that was never made.
Perhaps it couldn't have been made. In the old story, St. Bernard takes charge of the unrepentant horse thief in order to prepare his soul for death, and several years later the horse thief voluntarily submits to being hanged; the old story doesn't say how this change of heart was brought about, and obviously the value of the film we see being made depends largely on how it answers this question. If Zanussi doesn't have the answer himself then of course the film version of the St. Bernard story could not be made by him. What we see instead is a dying man who wants to know the answer; and we see him find out what the answer is, without being told the answer ourselves.
(This is not quite true. A monk tells the protagonist what he thinks the answer is, and he sounds deeply unconvincing, to himself, the protagonist, and to us; and although what he says doesn't SOUND like the correct answer, we don't know that it isn't. In fact, I suspect that it is, although a mumbled explanation spoken with the speaker's knowledge that it sounds foolish is not the same thing as a persuasive demonstration of the lessons which St. Bernard may have taught the thief by example in the monastery centuries earlier.)
Zanussi has made his own parable about death, and although I still wish he'd told the mediaeval story instead I also realise he couldn't have. Hopefully someone else will.
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