aka A Tale of Adam Mickiewicz's 'Forefathers' Eve' aka Lawa
dir. Tadeusz Konwicki, 1989
Poland, 129 minutes
In Polish, with English subtitles
Konwicki's final film was another adaptation, this time of the national epic of Polish literature, Adam Mickiewicz's "Forefather's Eve", a 19th-century romantic poem merging a traditional feast guiding the spirits of the dead the afterlife, thwarted love, and political agitation against the occupying Russian government that abolished Poland as an independent state from 1795 until World War I. Though the Russian oppressors that sent Mickiewicz into exile in 1824 for student political involvements were Tzarists, the parallels were not lost on Soviet censors following WWII, who banned performance of the work as part of a general cultural-political crackdown in 1968. It's no coincidence that Konwicki was only able to get his film version produced in the twilight days of the Warsaw Pact's dissolution at the end of the 80s, sounding a final death knell for Russian government in Poland.
The film itself, interweaving Mickiewicz's life and multiple plot threads with post-modern panache, shows Konwicki's film magicianship in full effect. Non-diegetic shots of modern and pastoral landscapes break into monologues to spread their relevance over the whole of Polish history, cameras lurch past despotic Russian governors in period attire to display cars passing on the street outside, and Mickiewicz appears in various proxies, as an impassioned agitator inciting fellow prisoners in the limbo of political incarceration and then as a spectral poet (portrayed by the great Gustaw Holoubek, who also haunts HOW FAR AWAY, HOW NEAR) pouring out vitriol against oppression and against God across time and space. The stand-out sequences fully embody Mickiewicz's 19th century romanticism -- a gothic nocturnal seance that frames much of the action and suggests that all of Poland may have long existed only in a state of living death, and a sudden breakout into revolutionary song in prison, accompanied only by the clanking percussion of the austere surroundings and somehow attaining an a deathly seriousness with nothing in common with ordinary instances of musical numbers on film.
Dense, beautiful, confounding, and with a breathtaking urgency that comes through undiminished nearly three decades later.
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