A short excerpt from the booklet essay by Michał Oleszczyk.
A fiercely cerebral inquiry into the nature of happiness, truth and knowledge, Illumination (Iluminacja, 1972) was Krzysztof Zanussi's third feature fi lm and remains to this day his most adventurous one.
Epic in scope yet extremely fragmented – told in jumps and starts – it aims at nothing less than presenting an essence of a life, while remaining as detached from it as possible. It won't be until Peter Greenaway's The Falls (1980) and Alain Resnais' Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980) that narrative cinema will again come as close to resembling a gripping scholarly essay.
The film opens with a short lecture by Władysław Tatarkiewicz, a legendary Polish historian of philosophy. We learn that "illumination", according to St. Augustine, is an instance of gaining perfect and immediate knowledge – not by means of reasoning, but in a sudden flash that is only accessible to those "pure of heart". Even before Tatarkiewicz begins to speak, the first movement of Wojciech Kilar's musical score mimics the hyperactivity of the main character's mind: racing, processing,
unable to settle down. In essence, the whole story is about Franciszek's search for illumination and his dawning realization that it may not be attainable for him.
As controlled and deliberate as Illumination seems, it's important to remember that the film was shot without a fixed screenplay. All Zanussi prepared was an extremely dense and dryly written short story with many loose ends, which was then transformed into a script-like form ("It was done solely as a formality and we never consulted it on the set," Zanussi recalled).
In a project so attuned to the personality of its main actor, the casting was key. Stanisław Latałło, a filmmaker in his own right – as well as a tragic, legendary figure, who died in a mountaineering
accident in 1974 – wasn't Zanussi's first choice, but in the end proved to be an ideal one. Their on-set cooperation was rather thorny, as described by Latałło's widow in A Trace (Ślad, 1996), the short film made by Stanisław's son Marcin. Stanisław wanted to play his character as a James Dean-like doomed rebel, oozing charisma and channeling the same kind of discontent Latałło found in his favorite movies, namely those made by the members of the 'angry young men'/British New Wave movement of UK playwrights and filmmakers in the late 1950s and early 1960s typified by the works of John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson et al. Zanussi, as far from John Osborne's fiery rhetoric as possible, opted for a hushed tone and more homey appearance: Latałło would often complain to his wife that the director makes him wear "some damned striped pajamas" instead of a costume that would add a dash of cool to his persona.
To better place the film in the context of its time, it is important to remember that Illumination was one of the harbingers of a movement in Polish cinema that helped to snap the country out of a slumber that lasted for much of the complacent 1960s (famously referred to as "the era of little stabilization" by Tadeusz Różewicz). The violent clash of discontented students with the authorities in the politically charged March of 1968 led to an aftershock that will ultimately yield the Solidarity movement. The so-called 'cinema of moral anxiety', of which Zanussi was one of the godfathers pointed out the divisions and wounds that defined everyday life in the People's Republic of Poland, whilst striving to show life 'as it was' rather than as the Communist authorities declared it to be.
Michał Oleszczyk's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the DVD release.
A short excerpt from the booklet
Sight & Sound by David Jenkins
DVD Beaver by Eric Cotenas
CineVue by Daniel Green
idFilm by Michael Pattison
Digital Fix by Clydefro Jones
The Observer by Philip French
Mondo Digital by Nathaniel Thompson
Electric Sheep by Alison Frank
Film Comment by Dan Sullivan
(i) Zanussi interviewed by Peter Hames at 2013 Kinoteka Polish Film Festival screening of Illumination
(ii) 'The Cinema of Moral Concern' from Cinema of the Other Europe by Dina Iordanova
(iii) Zanussi at Cultre.pl
(iv) Itineraries of a Hummingbird - an inteview with Zanussi from Cineaste
(v) The late, great composer Wojciech Kilar
(vi) Sites of remembrance: Music and memory in Polish film - a dissertation on music as a site of collective memory in films by Krzysztof Zanussi, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Wajda, and Roman Polanski.
(vii) Polish Cultural Institute