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.
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.