A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984)

A Year of the Quiet Sun, by the Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi, deservedly appears among Roger Ebert‘s Great Movies reviews (http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?category=greatmovies_fulllist).  Set in war-torn Poland in 1946, at the end of World War II,  the story revolves around the love of Norman (Scott Wilson), an American soldier, and Emilia (Maja Komorowska), a Polish widow of indeterminate age. She seems to be in her 40s but her face clearly shows the ravages of war and she could be much younger.

This type of story has been filmed hundreds of times, no doubt, by Hollywood studios among others, but never, I dare say, with the beauty and sensitivity of this film. Every scene rings true, and there isn’t a cliché in the entire film. I don’t know much about the work of either principal actor, but Scott Wilson is perfect for the role and Maja Komorowska is perfect, period.

Norman is a decent man who has stayed on in Europe because there is nothing for him back home. He’s volunteered to serve as a driver for a commission seeking to locate a mass grave holding the remains of American airmen who were brutally slaughtered by the Germans. Some of his colleagues are making money by engaging in black-market activities, but this is not for him.

Emilia and her mother (Hanna Skarzanka) live in the remains of a bombed-out apartment building. The mother, who does not have a name, is dying from gangrene in her leg, and Emilia spends much of her time caring for her . She also has a small job baking pastries for the local bakery. Emilia takes respite from the rigors of her existence by painting. If I have one criticism of the film, it’s that Zanussi doesn’t take full advantage of this.

The film opens with Emilia sitting in an abandoned wreck of a car, painting a scene showing the sun. (This is the only time that we see her painting.) I can only surmise that this is the quiet sun of the title of the film, because there is very little sun in the film. Many of the scenes are filmed at night and the daylight scenes are bleak and foreboding, in keeping with the desolation of the area. The cinematography, by Slavomir Idziak, fits the mood of the film and the vision of the director perfectly. This, of course, is what good cinematography should do, assuming that the director has a vision to begin with. When there is no such vision, you wind up with pretty scenes that do nothing to advance the story.

Norman drives by in his Jeep and tries to talk with Emilia. Unfortunately, they have no common language between them. He knows only English and she knows only Polish. Nevertheless, he immediately takes a liking to her, learns where she lives, and visits her, bringing her some paints. Their relationship deepens, slowly but inevitably, into true love, culminating in the most sensitive and tender love scene that I have ever seen in any film.

One area in which this film stands head and shoulders above the typical Hollywood version of this type of story is its depiction of the bleakness of the lives of the town and its people. Even as late as 1984, the area in which the film was shot had still not been rebuilt and was no doubt as desolate as it was at the end of the war. Worse, by 1946, the Communist Party was beginning to take over, and the town is filled with spies and corrupt politicians. It quickly becomes very clear that the people will be no better off than they were under the Germans, if not worse off.

In a crucial scene, the mass grave of the airmen is discovered and the remains are exhumed. Attempts are made to identify them. In a brilliant piece of film making, Zanussi goes far beyond the usual procedural approach and makes a powerful statement at the end of the scene that I will not even attempt to describe here.

There are two keys scenes in which an interpreter is used to try to break through the language barrier between Norman and Emilia. In the first, Norman is desperate to tell Emilia how much he loves her, so he brings a translator with him to their apartment. The translator, however, fails completely in his efforts, and what he tells Emilia has nothing to do with what Norman has said. His translations, at least, do no harm.

The same cannot be said, however, of the second translator, a nun. Norman has decided that he wants to bring Emilia home with him. There is a meeting involving the two of them with a nun and, I believe, a government official. The nun obviously does not want Emilia to leave the country, telling her that it would be virtually impossible and would take years for the paperwork to be processed. In addition, she completely distorts what Norman and Emilia are trying to say to each other.

Nevertheless, Norman’s obvious love for Emilia wins out and they begin to make plans to get Emilia and her mother out of the country. Norman manages to procure some penicillin for the mother, in the hope of curing her infection.

Norman wants to try to get the women out of the country himself, but Emilia argues that this would put him in grave danger. Emilia’s mother has struck a deal with a corrupt official to get herself and her daughter out of the country. When it comes time to get ready to leave, however, the man reneges on the deal and tells the mother that his price has doubled and he will only take one of them. The mother then stops taking the penicillin, hastening her death, so that Emilia can leave.

Meanwhile, Emilia’s friend and neighbor, Stela (Ewa Dalkowska), a prostitute with a German soldier as her regular client, has gotten into trouble with the Communists. (The soldier was blackmailed into revealing the location of the mass grave.) Unaware that the corrupt official has reneged on the deal and believing that he will take two people, Emilia promises her late mother’s spot to Stela. When she later learns the truth, Emilia keeps her promise to Stela and is forced to remain behind. By this time Norman has already gone home.

Spoiler alert:

At one point late in the film, Emilia and her mother mention that they do not know much about the United States but that they have seen one film: Stagecoach. This was the first Western that John Ford filmed in Monument Valley, Utah.

Fast forward to 1963: Norman has died and Emilia, who has grown old and feeble,  is living in a convent with a group of nuns, although she has not taken the vows herself. The Mother Superior informs her that an anonymous donor has left her his fortune and suggests that Emilia donate the money to the nun’s order, but Emilia decides to use the money to go to the United States after all and asks the nun to call a taxi. As she starts to leave her room, however, she grows weak and falls.

In what could be considered an epilogue, the final scene of the movie shows Norman and Emilia, at the ages that they were in 1946, dancing in Monument Valley–the only place in the United States that Emilia has ever seen. If this sounds hokey, it is anything but. Rather, it’s a brilliant ending to a wonderful film.

A Year of the Quiet Sun is available on Netflix streaming video.

The Uselessness of “Greatest Films” Lists

Every 10 years, the British magazine Sight and Sound polls film critics throughout the world to select the 10 greatest films of all times. Personally, I believe that such lists are a wasteful exercise that prove very little, but the Sight and Sound list is the best of a flawed lot. For a long time, Orson WellesCitizen Kane has appeared at the top of the list, and few critics would disagree with this placement. However, the just-published 2012 list has generated a great deal of controversy because Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo has dethroned Citizen Kane.

Roger Ebert has an excellent discussion of the new list in his journal: http://blogs.suntimes.com/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/48698. I agree with just about everything that he has to say, including the lack of any film by Ingmar Bergman, who in my opinion is one of the 10 greatest directors whose work I have seen.

Missing an Essential Point

The Sight and Sound list misses an essential point: What is the definition of a great film? I suspect that if you were to ask that question of the 800-plus voters who participated in this year’s poll, you would get 800-plus different answers.

Is Vertigo a better film than it was when it first appeared on the list? Is Citizen Kane a lesser film today than it was in 2002, when it topped the list? Of course not. The films haven’t changed; they’re as good as they have always been. What has changed is our taste in films.

Generational Bias

When the 2002 list was published, Roger Ebert observed that there seemed to be a generational bias, in that the voters tended to prefer those films that had made a strong impression on them when they were young. He lamented the absence of any post-1980 films on the list.

I’m 71 years old, and when I was a college student some 50 years ago we had a film club. This was my first exposure to Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin, and The Passion of Joan of Arc, among other classics. All of them made a great impression on me, and if I were frivolous enough to attempt to create a top-10 list of my favorite films, all of them would be on it.

The very idea of publishing a list of the greatest films of all time borders on hubris, in my opinion. I have more than 2,000 titles in my collection, including many of the great classics, but if you were to ask me to create a list of the 100 greatest films of all time, I would refuse to do it, for the simple reason that I haven’t seen every film that has ever been made. The most that I could do would be to produce a list of the 100 greatest films that I have ever seen, and as you can suppose, I would do that very reluctantly.

I expect that as older generations of critics pass out of the picture and younger ones gain prominence, we can expect to see a generational shift in the films that critics deem to be great. However, I don’t see much evidence of it at this point. A few post-1980 films are among the top 50 on the Sight and Sound list but there are none in the top 10. In fact, as Roger Ebert has noted, the current list skews older than the 2002 version.

As a result, many recent outstanding films have been ignored. Where is Dark City, which made some of the most-effective use of special effects that I have ever seen? The special-effects are an integral part of the film, and the ever-changing city itself becomes a character of its own.

Where is Pan’s Labyrinth, where the horrors of the heroine’s fantasy world pale in comparison with the horrors of the real world in which she must also exist (fascist Spain during World War II)?

Where is The Mill and the Cross, a film that draws you into it and doesn’t let go? Of all the films in my collection, there are only two that I cannot stop watching once I’ve started the film. This is one; The Passion of Joan of Arc is the other.

My point is that a great movie is a great movie. It doesn’t matter when it was made, and we should be open-minded to the great movies that are being made today as well as to the ones that were released before or during our youth. That still begs the question of what constitutes a great movie, and I don’t have an absolute definition of one. For me, it comes down to a movie that touches my heart and soul.

Useful Guides to Great Films

If greatest-films list serve any useful purpose at all, it is as a guide to films that are worth viewing. But there are far better guides available, starting with Roger’s Great Movies reviews. He makes no attempt to rank the films or to imply that the films on the list are the greatest ones available; he simply says that these are great films that are worth watching.

Another great resource is the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, edited by Steven Jay Schneider. The fourth edition was published in 2011. I disagree with about 50 of his choices and there are probably 50 others that I might have included, but that still leaves 950 solid recommendations.

Finally, some of the VideoHound and Rough Guides are very good and are worth seeking out, although they appear to be out of print.

Sneak Preview

Actually this is more of an introductory trailer than a sneak preview, but “Introductory Trailer” seems so dull and boring. In any case, I have three passions–baseball, film, and music–and rather than having my main blog, “Conversations With the World,” wander from one of these subjects to another, I’ve decided to create blogs for each one. Watch this space for my comments on all types of films, both classic and contemporary.