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Homely materials become a complex, resonant film; From Poland, the stunning story of a troubled idealist

By David Sterritt / March 3, 1983



New York

The Constant Factor is one of the most stunning films to emerge from Europe in the past 20 years. Though the subject matter is simple - a young man embarking on his career - it transforms its homely materials into a complex and resonant story rich in personal, political, and philosophical overtones.

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The result is a triumph for all concerned, especially Polish filmmaker Krzysztofcq Zanussi, who is also known for such films as ''A Woman's Decision'' and ''Camouflage.''

The main character is an idealist, a bright and hopeful man who believes that good intentions and good works will make a positive difference in the world about him. Yet a shadow hangs over him - the memory of his father's accidental death in a mountain-climbing accident. This memory becomes a motif of the film, embodied in a powerful shot of a Himalayan peak that recurs at key moments of the action.

As if to exorcise this image, the young man begins a deliberate campaign to control his experience, vanquishing accident and chance. His methods are admirable: intellectual rigor, through study of mathematics; physical courage, through mountaineering and sky-diving; moral integrity, through a sincere interest in the deeper questions of human existence, and a refusal to acquiesce in bribery and chicanery at his workplace.

Ironically, it's this last quality - his ethical posture - that threatens his progress to a ''respectable'' position in his profession and his society. His colleagues resent his staunchly upright stance, leading to a masterfully ambiguous climax that casts blinding new light on all the issues of the film.

After its first American showings, at the New York Film Festival in 1980, ''The Constant Factor'' was applauded by many critics for its prescient political aspects. Though a number of recent Polish films have dealt with labor unrest, Zanussi's contribution seems particularly acute in its exposure and criticism of workplace corruption and bureaucratic insensitivity.

Yet the greatest value of ''Constans'' - to use the Polish title - lies more on a philosophical than a political level. Ingeniously written and performed with uncommon skill and insight, it merges gripping story values with moral and ethical meditations, finally going beyond all these elements into realms of reflection rarely touched on by the world of film. ''The Constant Factor'' will have its American theatrical premiere next Wednesday at the Film Forum in New York as part of a ''Polish Panorama'' presented by the courageous New Yorker Films distribution company. From there, one hopes it will spread like wildfire to screens everywhere. Independent films

Independent films made outside the Hollywood mainstream are unusually visible these days. One reason is a stimulating collection of ''classics'' now touring the United States, scheduled to visit 24 locations before ending its travels at the end of next year.

The American New Wave (1958-67) includes 13 films that challenge the way movies are traditionally financed and shot and question the very purposes film should fulfill. Though it's hard to generalize about them, they are often marked by gritty images, loose acting styles, and a habit of avoiding the expected. Don't look for polish, or - in some cases - taste. Do look for an adventurous experience.

One of the most powerful selections, for instance, is ''The Brig'' by Jonas Mekas, an excoriating portrait of a military jail filmed from a stage production by the Living Theater. Another winner, ''David Holzman's Diary'' by Jim McBride, deftly satirizes the life of a movie buff determined to capture his own life on film.

''Nothing But a Man'' by Michael Roemer and Robert Young, and two pictures by Shirley Clarke, ''The Cool World'' and ''Portrait of Jason,'' evoke aspects of black experience with uncomfortable sharpness. By contrast, some other items are exercises in whimsy and iconoclasm - ''Pull My Daisy,'' for example, directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie with narration by Jack Kerouac; and ''The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man'' by the late Ron Rice, with its manic performance by Taylor Mead.