A feature film from 1972, directed by Krzysztof Zanussi.
Table of contents: How it came about | The plot | Illumination as a spiritual and intellectual biography | Credits |
How it came about
The Illumination, the semi-experimental movie from 1972 directed by Krzysztof Zanussi remains one of the most unique works in the history of the Polish cinema. Inspired by narrative freedom taken from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Zanussi attempted to create a ‘cinematic essay‘, which would be more of a registration of thought flow than classical feature film story. In order to achieve it he decided to mash up different clichés, combine fiction story with documentary scenes and scientific lectures. The script is a draft, no longer than several pages, with wide area left for improvisation. The Illumination’s cast does not consist of actors only but also of a group of scientist who performed under their original names. A young cinematographer Stanisław Latałło plays the main character - a young physics student Franciszek. Although he was initially very reluctant about acting, eventually he almost totally merged with his character, and since than remained in cinema lovers’ memories as Franciszek. It was strengthened by his tragic death: during his work on Illumination he fell in love with mountains and died in Himalaya two years later.
The film was very warmly welcomed by audience and was as well internationally acclaimed winning, inter alia, the Grand Prix at Locarno Festival. Its unusual form encouraged other experimenting artists, such as Alain Resnais or Sławomir Shuty, to go on with their artistic explorations.
Illumination is based on a simple scheme: it is a story of starting the adult life which begins with the main character being accepted at the university, ends during his works on the PhD thesis. After passing perfectly the admission exam Franciszek leaves his hometown and goes to Warsaw to study physics. He experiences a fling; his best friend’s death; he struggles with a choice of his specialization. Once he becomes a husband and father, rough material conditions force him to take a year off and start working as a medical equipment fitter. Every new situation in his life gives a wide space for philosophical thoughts, interweaved by nonfiction interludes: physicists’ discussions about scientists’ responsibility for entire society, documentary scenes from operating room (including brain surgery) or popular science lectures illustrated with tables, animations and graphs.
Illumination as a spiritual and intellectual biography
Zanussi presents Franciszek’s experiences from many different angles, going far beyond the boundaries of bare facts. He tries to cover the spiritual and intellectual aspects of his character’s life. The spectator is bombarded with institutional information about him: results of medical examinations, official letters, indexes, office applications etc. But from the other hand Franiszek’s life consist of moments of family happiness, nightmares, and metaphysical experiences on the mountains trails as well as his very specific way of perceiving the world. A question: ‘what is the substance of individual biography’ dominates this thick collage of various aspects of human life.
By touching such fundamental matters Zanussi took a risk of running into pathos but slightly ironic form of essay and unpretentious role of Stanisław Latałło make it far from intellectual mediocrity. Franciszek is used as a medium for asking existential questions. He tries to discover the ultimate truth but fails to do so, despite hopes placed in university, monastery and philosophy…
The uniqueness of The Illumination lies in various discourses (scientific, medical and religious) being equally important and illustrated with adequate audio-visual components. The director juxtaposes contrasting ways of thinking about/talking about/presenting the reality: e.g. first we see the encephalogram recording of the sleeping brain activity with a scientific commentary and than there comes a poetic vision depicting its dreams; a monk lost in contemplation and prayer in a church. The sequence ends with neurophysiological explanation of ecstatic states.
There are no clear guidelines in The Illumination about how to deal with the abundance of ideas and worldviews. The audience is forced to deduce its own answer from ideas being clashed with each other – wrote Tomasz Kłys.
Zanussi, who gave up his physics studies to take up philosophy and finally ended up as a film artist never tries to depreciate materialist nor metaphysical way of perceiving the reality. Instead he tries to put those very opposite points of view together to make them interpenetrate and cooperate to give at least approximate idea of the truth about the world.
In the first scene of the film, the well-known professor Władysław Tatarkiewicz elucidates the meaning of the term ‘illumination’. According to St. Augustin illumination is a state, when a human with a pure heart gains suddenly an access to knowledge and wisdom, without using his mind or senses. The title itself provokes a question: Does Franciszek experiences the state of illumination on any stage of his explorations? Zanussi in a foreword to the script (published in 1970s) wrote that the title is to be treated ironically because Franciszek’s hopes of ultimate cognition are totally disappointed. However at the same time, by the means of formal guidelines the authors suggest that wisdom is not there where he was looking for it. Zanussi mentioned also the semantic role of Wojciech Kilar’s music sometimes underlining the importance of specific fragments of Franciszek’s life and sometimes ironically commenting others. The cinematography of Edward Kłosiński is also an important factor here given that St. Augustine’s idea of illumination is based on a light/wisdom metaphor. The final scenes are extraordinarily meaningful – the main character, exhausted by his scientific work, experiences the moment of happiness and full relaxation lying on the beach and watching birds with his family. Does he experience the illumination at this moment? Is true wisdom based on accepting the existence of the mystery and discovering the value of everyday life? Enigmatic final doesn’t end Franciszek experiments in a shallow moralistic formula. It poses multiple new questions.
"Iluminacja", Polska 1972. Directed by Krzysztof Zanussi. Script: Krzysztof Zanussi. Cinematography Edward Kłosiński. Music Wojciech Kilar. Set deisgn Stefan Maciąg. Cast: Stanisław Latałło (Franciszek Retman), Monika Dzienisiewicz-Olbrychska (Agnieszka), Małgorzata Pritulak (Małgorzata, Franciszek wife), Jan Skotnicki, Edward Żebrowski (doktor).
Producer: Studio Filmowe Tor. Colour, 2512 m, 87 min.
Author: Robert Birkholc, 13.02.2014