A quiet, intelligent, ambitious science student pursues the meaning of life while leading his own in 1970s Warsaw. Original title: Iluminacja.
Krzysztof Zanussi’s Illumination is profound but never pretentious, important / heady but neither self-important nor arrogant. It’s also another kind of rarity: a[n] [sm]art film that moves briskly, frantically—pursuing meaning along with its main character, sharing his excitement and life-tempo, and treating his mission as energetically as he does. An intellectual action film? Then there’s style: from musically-tinged jump cuts (echoes of the French New Wave), to graph inserts (academics peak at 36!), to the use of lecture/discussion footage (e.g. philosophical meaning of “illumination”). All is inventive, vital. Beautiful moments arise, but aren’t milked: a moment between father, son, and the frame of an unfinished skyscraper passes with the same velocity (24fps, 5 degrees West of Brilliance) as exhilaration, tragedy (scientists and Romantics both love their mountains), horror. What is horrific: the disappointment of the curious mind, the physical limitations of the human body, the prodding and cutting-open of brains—made visual, but not only literal—and so on. Though the film does end on an illumination, there is dread throughout. Yet in a film that makes you squirm in your own mortal, decaying, prone to electro-shock body, there is also hope, also a soul. Zanussi, in his physicist-philosopher genius, rips you open and lays you bare. Or is it autobiographical? Don’t answer: Illumination occurs.
Krzysztof Zanussi, 1973