The Issa Valley - Tadeusz Konwicki
Tadeusz Konwicki's film traces a journey through Czesław Miłosz's mythical world, reliving his own youth in Lithuania and the lost realm of a multicultural past
The film is an adaptation of the 1955 book by Czesław Miłosz, which was first published in the Parisian journal Culture. At the time of its publication, the writer was heavily critiqued by fellow Poles for his decision to stay in the west. The story was subsequently meant to be a means of therapy, both as a way of countering loneliness in a foreign land for the author and of regaining mental and physical health. It also served to counter the writer's block that was proving increasingly problematic. It was a journey back into childhood for the author, as well as the imaginative creation of a mythical land bordered by the river Issa - an artistic analysis of various events and phenomena.
The banks of the mythical river allude to the banks of the real-life Niewiaż river, where Miłosz spent his childhood. The author used his past memories to create an entirely different, stylised and enchanted world frequented by both men and devils, people who spoke in different tongues and were raised in different cultural traditions. The world is observed from the point of view of an eight-year-old boy, but this is not a typical child's perspective. This is above all a tale of coming of age, becoming familiar with the world, and maturing and growing in the face of adversity. Despite the strong autobiographical ties of the novel, the rich array of literary signs and motifs present a work that is almost anthropological in scope; painting a picture of the multicultural oasis that was Lithuania at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Film director Taduesz Konwicki did not chance upon this narrative by accident. The timing was significant. In 1980 Miłosz received the Nobel Prize for literature, earning him respectful recognition as an accomplished writer. Secondly, Konwicki also, like Miłosz, hails from Lithuania and his works often express a similar kinship with the world. Czesław Miłosz's family were also firm supporters of Konwicki's adapting the narrative. It was in 1980, during the New Year thaw, that the director (who is also a significant author), after many years of having his works censored, could finally announce
I must admit, I did not believe that I would return to the cinema. Nor did I ever think that it would be to put the inner thoughts of Milosz to film. After a long period of hesitation, the writer's family, who had originally turned to me with this request, finally persuaded me. I think that they requested me in particular, as I come from Lithuania. Without this deepened knowledge of the area, you couldn't possibly dream of adapting this kind of text to the screen. I found myself in a similar position to that which Czesław Miłosz must have been in writing the text. I often recall my childhood in Lithuania, even though I left the country over thirty years ago. For me, "The Issa Valley" is not a simple story. Instead it's like a lens that sharpens my own memories of the land. Twenty-five years ago the story swept into my subconscious and enflamed my memory, not in terms of specific details, but in a general, sensual experience. I remember the smell of the woods, the taste of the water, the hue of the grass. I often return to Lithuania in my books; but I've never had the courage to re-visit it in film.
- Interview with Bogdan Zagrob for Film magazine (nr 39/1981).
Filmed in the region of Suwalszczyzna, very close to Lithuania's borders, and in New York (somewhat further) - this is kowicki's first feature film - but not the last, according to the director. The film enchants audiences with its ease and flexibility of vision (through the lens of cinematographer Jerzy Łukaszewicz). This is not a clear, straightforward narrative. Rather, it's a journey through images depicting, on the one hand, the growing into maturity of an adolescent boy, (even if, in keeping with the specifics of the text, he is only eight years old) and on the other hand- the wealth of tales, legends and gossip forming a unique atmosphere within a unique land. This is therefore a story made familiar through the eyes of a young boy. There's the tale of the priest's romance with his landlady; there's the tale of unrequited love and madness that leads to violence. In this world, matters take on a secretive air, aided by the wildness of the landscape and a deep ancestral memory, which still plays out amongst these people of different cultures and religions. These thoughts and imaginings give way to various ghosts and demons. Konwicki's film is not only a trial in adapting Miłosz's text to film, this is also a tale with the key to unlock the heart of each Pole with Lithuanian roots; especially those in the same generation as the film's director. This is simultaneously a motif of community, as well as an artistic pronouncement on a past work. During the film, acclaimed Polish actors recite Milosz's poetry; and faces of the cast and crew are shown in order to reflect on Konwicki's position as both the director and participant of the filmed experience. This is a history that refuses to vanish, in spite of the historic exodus of people that took place in its lands. "Tadeusz Konwicki's undertook a gargantuous task, but he undertook it for deeply emotive reasons", writes Krzysztof Mętrak in Kino magazine (nr 8/1981), adding:
He could almost have come from the pages of Miłosz's text; carrying with him the sense of that very loss which is particularly strong in his written works. The shared birthplace is, in this instance, very important, it guarantees artistic verisimilitude. To resurrect that world with sufficient authenticity can be undertaken only by someone with a similar, living memory. Only painful memories can create such a credible biography.
- Dolina Issy" / "The Issa Valley, Poland 1981. Based on the novel by Czesław Miłosz and directed by Tadeusz Konwicki, cinematography: Jerzy Łukaszewicz, music: Zygmunt Konieczny, set design: Andrzej Borecki, costume: Małgorzata Zduleczny, editing: Krystyna Rutkowska, sound: Nikodem Wołk-Łaniewski. Starring: Anna Dymna (Magdalena, the priest's landlady), Maria Pakulnis (Barbarka, Romuald's servant, Danuta Szaflarska (Michalina Surkontowa), Ewa Wiśniewska (Helena Juchniewicz), Edward Dziewoński (Kazimierz Surkont), Krzysztof Gosztyła (leśnik Baltazar), Jerzy Kamas (Romuald Bukowski), Jerzy Kryszak (the German devil), Maciej Mazurkiewicz (Tomaszek), Ewa Kuzyk-Florczak (Antonina), Anna Juszkiewicz (pokojówka Surkontów), Marta Lipińska (Tekla Dilbinowa from Surkontów, Tomasz's mother), Hanna Skarżanka (Bukowska), Joanna Szczepkowska, Włodzimierz Boruński (secretary), Tadeusz Bradecki (Rev. Peiks), Tadeusz Chudecki (Domcio Malinowski), Józef Duriasz (Józef Czarny), Gustaw Lutkiewicz (Łuk Juchniewicz), Igor Śmiałowski (Rev. Monkiewicz), Marek Walczewski (Masiulis the wizard), Elżbieta Jasińska (Pola), Halina Machulska (Akulonisowa), Urszula Janowicz (Onute Akulonis). Produced by: "Perspektywa" film group. Running time: 102 min.
The film premiered in Polish cinemas on September 20, 1982.
Author: Konrad J. Zarębski, March 2011. Translated by Jessica Savage-Hanford, March 2011.