Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Constant Factor (orig. Constans) [1980]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Filmweb.PL listing* article article*

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema: [MSP Website] []

The Constant Factor (orig. Constans) [1980] [IMDb] []* [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*(written and directed by Krzysztof Zanussi [IMDb] []* [] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*) is a "small" yet thought provoking / challenging film about a young man, an "every man," named Witold (played by Tadeusz Bradecki [IMDb] []*) who just wanted to lead an honest/meaningful life in a world of both randomness/uncertainty and seemingly endemic petty corruption.  The film won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival [IMDb] and played recently at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.

Like the other films of Martin Scorsese's series on Polish Cinema, this film was made during the Communist Era in Poland, hence in the context of a more-or-less obvious censoring authority that would cause film makers trouble if they strayed too far into subject matters considered problematic or even "verbotten."

So how then to make a film that "pushes the envelope" without getting oneself into too much trouble?

Well what censoring authority could possibly object to a film about a young man, portrayed as a patriot -- in the beginning sequences of this film, we see the film's central protagonist, Witold (despite height / "small in stature" issues), pushing to serve his time in the military (at the time compulsory for all young men in Poland) as a PARATROOPER (voluntary, far beyond that required of the average young man) -- who just wanted to lead an honest life especially if the character is also portrayed as taking the requisite pot-shots against, that is largely rejecting, the primary competing ideologies of the time (western democracy/capitalism and the Catholic Church)?  How could a censoring authority object to such a film, even if the film _repeatedly_ exposed the contradictions in the system between its ideal and its lived out reality, when the film's hero presented as the system's ideal "young, proletarian every man" studiously puts himself squarely _against_ each-and-every-one of the failures / contradictions that the film presents?   Basically, how can a censoring authority oppose a film about someone who's "just trying to be honest?"  (Yes, these are the games that an artist has to play to get challenging/meaningful works made in a society dominated by a simultaneously insecure yet pretentious, totalitarian ideology). 

Yet, then, having jumped through the requisite "ideological hoops" to be made at all, a film about a young man simply seeking to lead an honest / meaningful life becomes a story about universal aspirations, hence this film's well deserved acclamations coming from outside of its original context.  (I suppose I'm expressing here a frustration with the whole of Scorsese's project.  Yes, almost every one of the films in this Poland under Communism film series is _great_ BUT I can't help but feel that they are "great" IN SPITE OF THE OPPRESSIVE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH THEY WERE MADE.  And there have been plenty of excellent / great Polish films (and films from other former Soviet bloc lands) including Avé [2012] from Bulgaria, Chrzest [2010] from Poland, and Klauni [2013] from the Czech Republic, that I've reviewed here, that all tread similar ground as the current film but didn't require the ideological "hoop jumping" that so characterized Communist era film-making).

HOWEVER, then be all this as it may, young Witold found himself in this film confronting the same questions / challenges that would confront anyone seeking to make sense of the world and then seeking to make one's way through it honestly, whether one was born in Sparta or Athens, Babylon, Beijing, Mecca or Jerusalem of the ancient past, or Poland, India, the Netherlands or the United States of today: Life seems random / capricious at times.  Witold is haunted by the fact that his father, a mountain climber, had died of a seemingly random mountain climbing accident (on a Polish expedition to the Himilayas) when Witold was a child.  Then during the film Witold's mother comes down, again seemingly randomly, with cancer.

The caprciousness (random awfulness) of life however seems to be made worse, rather than better, by the petty corruption of people.  Witold lived in a socialist country.  It was supposed to be "All for One and One for All," right?  So when Witold's mother (played in the film by Zofia Mrozowska [IMDb] []*) lay in a bed in a drafty corridor of a hospital awaiting cancer treatment, it should not have required a bribe to get her into a decent room, right?  BUT APPARENTLY IT DID.  Realizing this, after getting nowhere with the doctor on duty, Witold, exasperated, becomes TOO BLUNT asking "Okay, how much do you want?  Just name a price."  The doctor, of course, leaves 'offended.'  The nurse on hand, Grażyna (played by Małgorzata Zajączkowska [IMDb] []*) who comes to be impressed by the surprisingly honest Witold, tells him "Look, you went about it the wrong way.  There's no talking. You just come with an envelope, preferably with dollars inside ..."  "But I don't have any dollars ..." Witold responds (that would clearly be a problem ...).  But then Witold recovers and askes tellingly if rhetorically, "Is the doctor short on money?  Does he really need it?"   Grażyna's expression says it all ("of course not..."), but she adds "He just expects it, because he can."  (ISN'T THAT THE TRUTH?  Right there is the origin of almost every abuse of power ... People are tempted to wield power _badly_ BECAUSE THEY CAN.  Indeed, the Latin root for the word power, potens, means EXACTLY THAT: "CAPACITY, TO BE ABLE TO").  So in a society where doctors, already in positions of power/prestige, use their power/prestige to shake down the loved ones of their patients, we can pretty much guess what eventually happens to Witold's mother... 

But the petty corruption of society isn't simply present in the hospitals (even if perhaps there, the consequences are most determinant), it occurs elsewhere.  Witold, who after leaving military service becomes an electrician, with a friend's help lands a job that actually offers him some outside/international travel ("WHAT A DEAL!" for someone from a Communist country where travel was often terribly restricted).  BUT ... Witold, good honest person that he was, actually didn't care much about the possibility of travel.  True, he didn't necessarily mind that his job gave him the opportunity to travel to India (where, in the Himilayas his father, had died previously).  HOWEVER, WHAT DID OFFEND HIS HONEST SENSIBILITY WAS THAT ALMOST EVERY OTHER WORKER IN HIS GROUP, INCLUDING HIS BOSS ROUTINELY OVERSTATED THEIR EXPENSES (pocketing the extra cash they'd receive on return for themselves).  So he asked his boss (played by Witold Pyrkosz [IMDb] []*): "DON'T YOU CARE that our tax-payers are paying for our travel overseas and when you _routinely_ overstate our expenses, THEY have to fork-up the money for that?"  (Of course he didn't, and neither did the other workers in the crew.  They did this, again ... BECAUSE THEY COULD).  So needless to say, Witold eventually had to get in trouble with his boss / co-workers ... and this couldn't end well for him in that regard ...

The society, nominally "socialist" mind you, was thus portrayed as one made-up of people mostly just gaming the system for themselves.

BUT EVEN BEYOND THIS, LIFE ITSELF SEEMS SO RANDOM, _INCONSTANT_, for Witold.  His father died in a fluke accident, his mother was dying of a random but uncompromising illness (cancer) AND NO ONE / NOTHING SEEMED TO HELP.  Near the end of her life, Witold, went to a priest -- the Catholic Church was portrayed in this film as something of a "relic of the past," inconvenient perhaps even embarrassing but still an unavoidable reality in Poland -- to ask if he could come to his mother to give her "Last Rites."  The priest corrected him, "The Sacrament is now called 'Announting of the Sick'" to which Witold responds: "Oh my, even the Church seems now to downplay the (One) Certainty of Dying." (It's actually an interesting criticism ...).

So where does Witold come to look for CONSTANCY in this world of capriciousness (randomness) and corruption?  Not in people (they are corrupt), not in religion (it's superstitious and even it changes with time), but in ... mathematics (where laws can be discerned but presumably remain constant).  He has some interesting discussions with a mathematics professor (played by Edward Żebrowski [IMDb] []*).  Together they discuss the possibility of being able to prove statistically (mathematically) that it is better to live an honest life -- less lies, less stress, less heart attacks, etc.

But the world with its capriciousness and corruption also has its say: The professor asks Witold if he ever considered getting a degree in mathematics to pursue such a study.  Witold, by then reduced to being a window washer on high rises, because he had gotten fired from his electrician job for refusing to go along with "cooking the books" with his boss and coworkers tells him that at this point he doubts he'd ever be allowed to enter the university.  And then even a job as a window-washer on high rises carries its own (random) hazards ...

This is, indeed, a story that would "make the Buddha proud."  An excellent, indeed haunting, visual reflection on impermanence, the central preoccupation of Buddhism, can be found in the film Samsara [2012] previously reviewed here).   My irritation with the current film is that it arrives at this place arguably by accident.

Finally, like several other films in Martin Scorsese's film series, the Polish film studio, TOV, that has the rights to the film has made it available (with English subtitles - click the "cc" option) FOR FREE ON YOUTUBE.  Despite my quite _many_ irritations with this film, only _some_ of which I list above (others include aesthetics -- Western viewers, please understand that the film-makers CHOSE to make this film "under grey skies and in incessant snow" FOR THE SAKE OF MOOD, Poland, certainly TODAY, is much prettier than shown in this film) the film's well _worth the view_.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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