The big news at this year's New York Film Festival was an explosion of movies from Eastern Europe. Seven entries hailed from Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Armenia.
The big question was whether this explosion would turn out to be a real cultural event or an artificial trend dreamed up by the festival's selection committee. Is Eastern Europe really returning to the glory days of "The Shop on Main Street" and "Knife in the Water"? Is there a rebirth of the tradition that produced such directors as Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, most of whom have since emigrated to English-speaking countries? Or have film fans turned to the East just because the West has gotten so boring lately?
The evidence points to a real renaissance. Of the seven Eastern European films at the festival, one was a genuine masterpiece, and three were unusually solid. Then there were a couple of mediocrities, and one dud from a onceprominent director.
The best of the bunch, and one of the triumphs of the entire festival, was The Constant Factor, from Polan. The director is Krzysztof Zanussi, previously known for such respectable but unexciting picture as "A Woman's Decision" and "Camouflage".
The hero is a young man named Witold. He has lived quietly with his mother since his father's death in a mountain-climbing accident. Witold has a fascination with high places. We watch him become a paratrooper and amuse himself by scrambling up rocks and clifs. He also has a yen for mathematics. When a teacher asks if he uses math as an "escape from reality," he replies that it's just the opposite. Plotting the patterns of random number and events gives him a sense of order and control over life.
Witold takes a job with an engineering firm and is shocked by the cheating among his fellow employeed, who supplement thei wages with illegal deals on the side. He asserts his own honesty, flatly refusing to connive in these doings. Thus he earns the hatred of his colleagues, who scheme against him and land him in trouble with the euthorities. At the end of the picture he has been reduced to a hard manual job -- cleaning windows on skyscrapers, a far cry from his dream of someday clibing the Himalayas.
It's a loosely plotted story, with an ambiguous conclusion involving an on- the-job accident. What's it all about, and what makes it one of the most stirring films in recent memory?
First, there is the picture's sociopolitical resonance: It paints a vivid picture of abuses that may have contributed to the recent radical changes in Poland's labor structure. Also, there is Tadeusz Bradecki's sensitive portrayal of the hero, who bears a passing resemblance to Dostoevsky's "Idiot."
And most of all there is Zanussi's astonishing visual sense. The story unfolds against the frequent recurrence of two images: the mountain that killed Witold's father, and the majestic peaks he dreams of conquering himself. Witold is a thughtful man who tries to order his existence through the noblest means, basing his life on personal integrity, physical courage, and intellectual precision. Yet there are areas of experience that are simply not susceptible to human solution and control, no matter how nelightened the attempt may be.
It is the triumph of "The Constant Factor" that such subtle ideas are movingly and penetratingly explored, all in the framwork of an engaging personal drama. This film fully deserves the "best director" prize it won at the Cannes Film Festival. Let's hope it finds a commercial audience in the United States before long.
Another entry in the New York festival was Sunday Daughters, by Janos Rozsa of Hungary. Set in a home for delinquent girls, it brings an almost frightening energy to its critique of contemporary attitudes toward adolescent problems. Goran Paskaljevic's Special Treatment, from Yugoslavia, examines problems of authority and control through the sadly comic story of a gang of alcoholic and their hypocritical doctor. The Color of Pomegranates, also known as "Sayat Nova ," is a plotless evocation of the life and work od a 13th-century poet. Fabulously beautiful to look at, it was directed by Sergei Pradjanov, and is identified as an Armenian film.
There were disappointments from Eastern Europe, too. Camera Buff, by Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski, rambles too much in its bittersweet tale of young Polish worker with a movie camera and a lot of personal troubles. Confidence, by Polish filmmaker Istvan Szabo, lets romance overtake history in its account of two fugitives who pose as husband and wife to escape the Nazis. And the renowned Andrzjez Wajda continues his artistic decline in The Orchestra Conductor, with John Gielgud as an emigre musician who returns to his old hometown in Poland.
The rest of the New York festival showed its ususually healthy internationalism, in films of widely varying quality. One Day Like Another, by Bengali director Mrinal Sen. Paints a contemplative portrait of city life in contemporary India. The Handyman, by Canadian filmmaker Micheline Lanctot, tells the lethargic tale of a laborer's love affair with a married woman. Bye-bye Brazil, by Carlos Diegues, follows a small-time carnival in its sometimes bawdy South American adventures. Masoch, subtitled "The Confessions of Wanda Sacher-Masoch," manages to be absurb and pornographic at the same time, in its biography of a famous sexual deviate, directed by Franco Brogi Taviani of Italy.
Also on hand were major new films by Akira Kurosawa, whose epical Kagemusha will be discussed in a later column, and Jonathon Demme, whose Melvin and Howard will open shortly for what promises to be a very successful commercial run. And France staged a miniexplosion ot its own, with good new movies from Jean-Luc Godard (Every Man for Himself), Maurice Pialat (Loulou), and Francois Truffaut, whose The Last Metro is the most thrilling film he's made in years. Again, more word on these in future columns.
As usual, the New York festival -- now 18 years old -- supplemented its feature fare with new documentaries. Handicapped Love and Here's Looking at You Kid deal compassionately with physical handicaps, while Rush and The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter explore American social issues. Only in the short-film category did the festival fall down completely. Except for Robert Breer's T. Z. and Raul Ruiz's Dog's Dailog, nothing less than 20 minutes long was worth looking at.
By contrast, the festival triumphed with its retrospective shows. Roberto Rossellini's magnificent Europa 51 was revived, as was Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, coupled with a discourse (assembled by Martin Scorsese) on the lamentable fading of old color films.
And to cap it off, five full hours of Louis Feuillade's Tih Minh, a classic silent serial with live piano accompaniment. So what if the plot is incomprehensible -- especially with the inter-titles removed, so you can't tell what anyone is saying? The sinister "Vampire" gaing is foiled in its evil plot ot dominate the world, and isn't that what the movies are all about?