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Spit and Polish

Walesa: Man of Hope (2013)

57th BFI London Film Festival

The latest film from the remarkable 87-year-old Polish director Andrzej Wajda is ostensibly the conclusion to a trilogy of films about the ascendance of the Solidarity movement in late 20th-century Poland, a project which began back in 1977 with “Man of Marble.”

The first film in the series charted the emergence of a (fictional) socialist folk hero, Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a record-breaking bricklayer who would fall out of favor with the authorities before being gunned down in the (very real) workers’ uprising massacres of 1970. That traumatic incident would go on to inspire both Birkut’s son, metalworker Maciej Tomczyk — titular character in the 1981 film “Man of Iron” also played by Mr. Radziwilowicz) and the burgeoning Solidarity movement as it took hold across industrial Poland during the 1980s.

The final film in the series turns attentions to a real-life figure, Solidarity’s leader Lech Walesa (played by Robert Wieckiewicz in the film), who rose from a life of laborer’s anonymity to become not just the head of Solidarity’s hierarchy but also Poland’s first democratic president. The film charts his unlikely evolution from relatively unrefined hardhead to a charismatic and forthright figurehead, whose plain-speaking and brute obstinacy would see him inherit the role of shepherding Poland into a new post-Soviet era.

From his beginnings as a bull-headed rabble-rouser with little distinct ambition or fully formed political ideology, Mr. Walesa’s progression up the ranks of the flowering free-trade union movement is depicted as somewhat arbitrarily inspired by a mixture of his indefatigability and the fact that his six children make him a less easily killable subject to the authorities. In the film’s early scenes, fellow counter-revolutionaries laugh behind his back and describe him as a “working-class chauvinist,” but Mr. Walesa had a knack of being in the right place at the right time and knowing how to provoke the regime into making mistakes.

As Solidarity evolved into a cohesive national force, Mr. Walesa was thrust into the spotlight as both troublemaker and negotiator in chief, somehow keeping the movement afloat, and himself alive during the brutal crackdown and martial law period of 1981 and eventually into the historic roundtable discussions of 1989 that signaled the disintegration of communist Poland.

Mr. Wajda’s aim is to show that Mr. Walesa’s mixture of naïve opportunism and blinkered arrogance would occasionally work against him even though his general direction of travel was upward. In one farcical sequence Mr. Walesa successfully negotiates his striking workers demands, only to be confronted by hardliners as he’s about to announce his successful deal. Mr. Walesa instinctively reneged on the pact, but his loudspeaker ran out of batteries just as he’s about to announce the change of heart. The sitting workers — having only heard the part about their demands being met — dutifully shuffled back to the factory floor, leaving Mr. Walesa’s strategy in tatters.

Despite such setbacks, Mr. Walesa never really modified his approach; and from henceforth his only moment of self-doubt occurs during the dark days of martial law when the public was split between recognizing his figurehead status while also resenting his incendiary provocations. As he’s being whisked away in a car to secret prison, he warned his kidnappers that he could open the window and announce his capture to the world, but when he did try it the crowds threatened to lynch him rather than save him.

The first two films in Mr. Wajda’s trilogy both frame their stories around the investigative research of journalists who go native while studying their respective counter-revolutionary subjects. Those films were made during the height of communism and Mr. Wajda’s use of such protagonists was brave because it required audiences to identify with these figures whose eyes were slowly opening to the hypocrisies of the regime. The journalists in those films journey from being watching observers to integral protagonists who influence change rather than just reporting it, and Mr. Wajda’s theme of participatory observation reflects on the making of the films themselves and his own moral contortions as a constrained filmmaker.

In the new film the device of a journalist is again used to navigate the subject’s biography, in the shape of notable real-life interviewer Oriana Fallaci (Maria Rosaria Omaggio) who’s come to Poland to investigate the cult of Walesa. His flirting, candid recollections and homespun philosophizing charmed Ms. Fallaci, and their dialogue forms an efficient basis for the film’s structure; but unlike the previous films, their discussions don’t hold the same sub/meta-textual reverberations. Instead the interview structure merely illustrates how refreshingly straight-talking and generally politically incorrect Mr. Walesa was, in a spirit that resonates with the homilies of American political discourse. Indeed if Mr. Walesa wasn’t already enough of a hero to similarly homespun Republican figures like Sarah Palin and George W. Bush, then this portrait should serve as ample reminder. This positioning of Mr. Walesa as a somewhat callous character who almost unwittingly ended up changing the course of history is also a dramatically familiar tactic from American culture, seen in Hollywood films such as “Charlie Wilson’s War” and even “Schindler’s List.”

Generally the film is a very outward-looking one — certainly in comparison to the insular initial entries in the trilogy — despite emanating from a director who could be considered Poland’s national filmmaker in a sense that’s almost unique in world cinema. The film is constructed to appeal to modern international audiences, and Mr. Wajda again proves himself fully capable of converting Polish stories into globally accessible fare as he did with “Katyn.”

Mr. Wajda and screenwriter Janusz Glowacki punctuate the story with enough dramatic, empathetic incidents to enliven what could have been a dry and parochial story, focusing on Mr. Walesa’s home life and relationship with his wife, Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska), who becomes a central figure when she’s sent to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on his behalf. Visually the film resorts to the rather familiar palette of gloomy greys and browns that seems to define most films set in this period of European history period, but cinematographer Pawel Edelman enlivens proceedings by mixing up media, from authentically scratchy 16mm to newsreel-style black and white.

Despite their attempts the film isn’t as engrossing or original enough to resonate with audiences as successfully as, say, Pablo Larraín’s “No,” which covered similarly provincial ground with flair and formal playfulness. Perhaps one of the film’s main unsatisfactory elements is that we know Mr. Walesa ended up as president of the new Poland, but we never get to see this triumphant, almost absurdly unexpected final chapter of the story.

In judging the trilogy as a whole now that it’s finally complete, we can say that it represents a fascinating historical artifact, but it’s an unusual chronicle because its artistic themes developed as history progressed: Mr. Wajda wasn’t to know that Solidarity would become a national force when he made “Marble” and wouldn’t have dreamed that its escapades would inspire the flowering of democracy when he made “Iron” three years later. In the first two films, at least, history feeds back into the drama with the same fluidity that truth and fiction, legend and reality, are insouciantly interposed. “Man of Hope” doesn’t play any of these games; it’s infinitely more accessible but markedly less interesting, which is disappointing given that Mr. Wajda proved that he still likes to toy with such meta-fictional conceits as recently as “Tatarak” in 2009.

While “Man of Iron” was made four years — and four very long years in terms of Polish history — after “Man of Marble,” Mr. Wajda cleverly presented both films as a seamless whole in which footage was interchangeable between the two films. Although this final chapter is so markedly different and made such a long-time after the first two, Mr. Wajda cleverly alludes to this interchangeability by including a single shot from “Man of Iron”, but it’s so instantaneous as to be only noticeable to the most eagle-eyed Mr. Wajda watchers. It constitutes, at least, a minor nod to the docu-fictional approach of the earlier films; but in finishing the trilogy with such a historically accurate and conventional film, Mr. Wajda reminds us of the old adage that the most incisive art often springs from the most restrictive of environments.


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