At TIFF, we find Andrzej Wajda's Lech Wałęsa biopic to be a surprisingly lively, cogent take on (part of) the life and times of one of the pivotal figures of the 20th century.
Wałęsa. Man of Hope
Poland, 2013 -- Dir. Andrzej Wajda
More consistently than any other Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda has dedicated himself to presenting the social, cultural and political life of his country on screen. Despite the odd eccentric excursion into meta-moviedom (check out 1968's Everything for Sale and 2009's Sweet Rush for that) and prestige literary adaptation (the well-meaning but fumbled Pan Tadeusz(1999)) there's no denying that Wajda's most enduring work has been his dramatizations of Polish history and/or current events, from his seminal War Trilogy of the 1950s (A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds) through Man of Marble (1976) and Man of Iron (1981) to 2007's phenomenally successful Katyn.
Wałęsa. Man of Hope feels very much like the culmination of the now 87-year-old Wajda's project to document Poland's past. A biopic focusing on the pivotal figure in contemporary Polish history, the movie arrives with a considerable weight of expectation and, it's fair to say, a considerable amount of apprehension too. Wałęsa was indisputably an (inter-)national hero during his co-founding of Solidarity and presiding over Poland's transition from Communism to democracy. But more recent years have seen his popularity wane, to say the least, with his 1990-95 presidency dogged by controversy and his conservative pronouncements on abortion and homosexuality doing little to endear him to younger generations.
For the most part, Wajda's movie skirts around these controversies by focusing on the period -- 1970 to the early 1980s with a brief 1989 coda -- when Wałęsa's activism was at its height: when he was at his most persecuted by the authorities and at his most celebrated by the people. The film's subtitle tells all, in a way, positioning the film as a belated conclusion to the Man of... series (Wałęsa had a brief cameo in Man of Iron) and outlining its attitude to its subject right off the bat.
Actually, the latter element generates an interesting tension in the movie. For, throughout, one senses Wajda's concern to avoid accusations of hero-worshipping his subject: Wajda's Wałęsa (a very skillful, commanding performance from Robert Wieckiewicz) is glossed for us early on as a man "full of surprises and contradictions"; we see him being arrogant, tetchy and controlling, and he even handily announces at one point "I'm no saint!"
Yet, there's no getting around the fact that Wałęsa. Man of Hope is essentially a myth (re-)making exercise: an attempt to restore Wałęsa's tarnished reputation. At times one can practically hear Wajda and his screenwriter Janusz Głowacki whispering to the Polish audience: "Quit complaining about this guy! Remember all that he did for us!" And in one scene, Wałęsa is even given the gift of prophesy, foreseeing that "it's all downhill from here" and that the Polish people who are now praising him will turn on him in the end.
Structurally, Wałęsa. Man of Hope is conventional: the movie is based Wałęsa's interview with an Italian journo Oriana Fallaci (played by Marie Rosaria Omaggio here),which triggers flashbacks to pivotal events, from the 1970 unrest in Gdansk and its brutal repression onwards. If there's more than an element of box-ticking to this approach, it does at least allow for the development of a very clear narrative that shows, in Wajda's words, "how history was making Lech into the person he, eventually, became and how [he] was making history.” A portrait builds of a practical-minded man -- certainly no book-reader or intellectual -- who was able to channel his "great anger" at the inequities of the Communist system in a way that served as a conduit for the people's anger and desire for change. "When the crowd falls silent, I know what to say," Wałęsa comments. "I can find the right words."
The film's shortcomings aren't hard to spot, especially since Wajda's desire for clarity results in some spelling-it-out clunkiness. "He's a good speaker! People listen to him!" two students announce as Wałęsa delivers a rousing speech, telling us what the movie is showing us. And a slightly bizarre late scene finds Wałęsa's foes observing him at a moment of triumph and growling "We'll get him!"; here the movie appears to posit its subject's fall from grace as the result of some kind of Commie conspiracy. And while aspects such as Wałęsa's Catholicism aren't explored in depth, there's one blithe comment that might give some viewers pause: Wałęsa's jaunty statement that "I agree with everything the Pope says."
Still, Wajda is a film-maker I always find myself rooting for despite his little lapses and Wałęsa. Man of Hope is, I would argue, a more sustained and assured piece of work than was Katyn, which, despite its unforgettable opening and closing sequences, sometimes felt stolid and clumsy: more monument than movie overall. Here, by contrast, Wajda's approach is looser, freer and more fluid with confident shifts between dramatization and archive footage and many scenes shot handheld: a reference back to the rather grungy aesthetic of the previous Man of... films, perhaps. (In fact, a clip from Man of Iron gets neatly interpolated into the movie at one point.) Throughout, protest rock songs are used to punctuate the scenes; whatever the artistic merits of these tracks they give the movie an energy and spirit that's quite invigorating, and the film signs off with Johnny Cash's reverent rumble through Paul Henry Dallaire's "A Song for Lech Wałęsa" playing over the credits.
There's some fond domestic detail too. The movie doesn't do much to individualise Wałęsa's (many) kids but clearly shows the toll that his activism takes on his family life; in one great little scene the family gathers to watch Rich Man, Poor Man on TV only to be interrupted by some pressing political business. And playing Wałęsa's wife Danuta, Agnieszka Grochowska (reuniting with Wieckiewicz from Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness)is just great, delivering a simple, unaffected performance that cuts through the potential sentimentality of the characterisation.
Wałęsa. Man of Hope may not rank, ultimately, alongside Wajda's strongest, most complex pieces of work. But it's an honourable effort and seldom less than engrossing. The reception of the movie in Poland - where it opens next month - will surely be fascinating to witness.