By Amir Ganjavie and Shadi Javadi.
Although Krzysztof Zanussi’s films received less global exposure over the past couple of decades and were not commercially successful, he is one of the most commonly seen Polish directors on the international festival circuit. Zanussi is very productive, having made almost fifty features with an average of nearly one film per year. His latest work, Foreign Body, recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and explores the nature of freedom, its limitations, and its meaning in contemporary, post-communist Polish society. Foreign Body is similar to Ida in that it seems to suggest that devotion to God and religious life provides more insurance, happiness, and prosperity than the one dedicated to the pursuit of profit and bodily pleasure. The movie is a good reminder of the classical era of cinema, in which character action was principal and not clarified with psychology and motivation. With a movie of such quality, we can only hope that it be financially successful.
The following is an interview with the director after the Toronto screening.
How would you describe Foreign Body and its central theme in one sentence?
Well, I’m probably the last person who should be asked this question. A director is following his audience and it’s very important to accentuate this language of methodology that artists might express things instinctively, spontaneously, and consciously, which is more sincere and valid than their ideas. So, ideas are sometimes in a dialogue but they are like quotes, it is not what I think, it’s what my characters say.
But what is predominant in this film is my protest against the scrupulous corporate mentality, lack of idealism, and ease with which young people accept corruption, especially because we were a generation that fought for freedom and now I see young people selling their freedom for a very low price. That’s probably something that preoccupied me but the message was absolutely unpopular and definitely not commercial. It is to say that all good deeds are not going to be rewarded on this earth, so if you believe that there is some higher intelligence or consciousness – I don’t want to say god – then you may say that maybe our deeds are not forgotten and there will be some account in the universe. Otherwise, life leaves us to despair because there is so much injustice, so much suffering, and we don’t know why and we cannot accept it as it is, unless we believe that there is some hidden logic behind it.
In the movie we have two characters, the tall lady running the corporation and the Italian man who is very religious, who seem to have no prospect of reconciliation between them since one represents modernity and capitalism while the other represents religion. Do you believe that there is no reconciliation?
No, I think there is and I leave it open ended as an invitation. The two of them lonely in despair but she confesses at the end of the last scene that she is disappointed that he did not fell into her trap. So, if a sinner expects conversion then that shows a very optimistic side and when the believer is losing his faith it is sometimes a good sign as well since it means that he is sincere rather than his faith merely being a routine. No, faith arrives, approaches you, and then vanishes. Consider how the story of Mother Teresa concluded, with her diaries being revealed after her death that she had lost all contact with divinity and for many years felt empty. Mother Teresa had the memory that once upon a time, she had this mystical experience and when I read Iranian poems, I find the same sentiment. They are so close to us because their spiritualty is so beautifully expressed and there is always this notion of emptiness that harms people, which we must accept.
Continuing on the same subject, what I found interesting was that the style you used in this movie is very different from religious or spiritual movies that I have watched before. For example, in Kieślowski’s movies silence is very important and in Bresson’s movies time is more important than space, but it seems to me that in your movie space is more important. Do you agree?
It is the style which I thought was appropriate to this particular story. When we talk about cooperation, intrigues, and relationships between people it has to have the language of a psychological film. And I don’t like this because it is now the fashion to use special effects, which I hate because everybody is using them. I used them maybe twenty years ago but it is always embarrassing and even humiliating to an artist to use something that is fashionable since that is a conformist approach (laughing). In this film I didn’t try it and I don’t think that I will try it because I’m a rationalist and so I don’t want to use easy tricks to express something or to my opinion it mustn’t be expressed, maybe received only the intuition. Maybe that is the reason. You know I produced all of Kieślowski’s films since he was a very close friend of mine with very similar views, though maybe one step more distant from the Catholic Church than I am. That was only one step because this intuition of human destiny was very similar.
I watched Ida last year, and in this film there is a message about the banality of life and the fact that the nun at end of the movie decided to return back to the life of a nun and in this movie it’s the same when the female character decided not to participate in everyday life but rather to return back to the church and live there. Does this reflect something about Polish society?
I think it is absolutely something universal and eternal. They compromise between actual, real life, which is a challenge and temptation to run away and to go to the desert and be an ardent. It’s as old as humanity is not specific to Christianity or another religion so I’m just exposing this. I like people who are more extreme than the average people you see every day on the bus. Thus, in cinema I want to show people who are in a way excellent because of all their flaws since nobody is perfect but people who have strong passions will definitely look for some solutions and to reject realities is an easy solution. However, I don’t approve of this since it is not a good solution. And you know, we say easily that if you live like others then you are on the safe side to some extent. When you test it you see that even the greatest altruist has moments of desperation which come close to despair and we have to face the fact that there is an eventuality which sees our culture trying to avoid any mention of that simply because we are cowards. And because the consumerist society allows us to forget everything while we are so busy shopping. (Laughing)
(Laughing) The leading actor in the movie is very interesting because at the same time she is powerful, very proud, sometimes even mean, and acts with total confidence, being very provocative in her sexual actions and indifferent to the sensibilities of others. Thus, her personality is very interesting to me and I’m wondering – did you have any inspiration for her?
Yes, of course I had some real-life examples but I also cast this in a productive way. The actress always acted as a very sweet, naïve, and good person and it was a kind of experience, she was very hesitant to accept the part. She is not repugnant and I hope that, in spite of how mean she is, we can feel some compassion for her, which was my intention since she is fragile and being misled by life and her mother.
Another thing that interests me very much is that you use multiple languages in your movies and you cast people from different ethnic backgrounds. Can you comment on this?
No, that’s the reality of Europe today and the reality of a globalized world. We all have to use other languages and in this film there was practically no native English speaker. There was one native Italian speaker but they always speak to somebody for whom this will be a foreign language and they put subtitles over the whole film because sometimes the accent is not very clear. However, that’s the vehicular English that we use in Europe whether we like it or not.
I thought maybe you chose English as the main language because of capitalism and the fact that this is the dominant language.
Oh, this is the reality of Europe. Yes, it is mostly spoken. Of course I have shot films in other languages, such as French, German, and some partly in Russian but for this story I thought it was appropriate. The actress had a hard time because it is very difficult to express yourself in a foreign language and you might make some funny mistakes. There are some articles missing or extra articles added and I left them in even though it was possible to eliminate these mistakes but I said “no, let us be portrayed as we are.”
My last question is about your future projects. Are you working on anything right now?
Yes, I’m working on two projects at the moment, which is a natural thing because it’s like planting difficult flowers; you never know which one will grow. I would call one project a bit Faustian; it is set in Central Europe during World War I and is very much about the nature of evil, particularly the human desire to possess other people and the delight of the war that removes all the limits on our behavior. During war you can do whatever you want if you are in a good position and this is a great danger to humanity because we are increasingly allowing ourselves to go beyond the point where we value the security of individual human beings. This will be one project and the other one may be set in faraway Manchuria
Yes, Manchuria after World War I or during a similar period when the new railway was constructed by the Russians. It will be kind of a love story but it is also a story about how a European power, Russia, was losing Siberia to China, which is something that may be reminiscent of today.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.