Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Holland at MoMA: A Lonely Woman

If a filmmaker with artistic integrity working behind the Iron Curtain never ran afoul of the state censors, they probably were doing something wrong. Based on that logic, Agnieszka Holland’s A Lonely Woman was a rousing success, as both film and director were banned in Poland shortly after its initial release. Screening today as part of the MoMA’s Holland retrospective, it serves as a vivid reminder of how grim life was under the Communist system.

Irena and her son literally live on the wrong side of the tracks, in a decrepit one-room apartment. It might not be much, but the landlord is still trying to force her out, resentful that the Party forced them on him. One day the exhausted Irena collapses while walking her beat as a postal carrier. She literally falls into the arms of Jacek, a former miner living on his disability pension after a workplace accident. He might not be much either, but he is smitten with the plain-looking single mother.

Jacek supplements his meager income by charging to shop for his neighbors, capitalizing on his line-cutting privileges. Queuing is a definite motif in Lonely. So are callous bureaucrats, who plague Irena’s unremarkable life. She attempts to petition the Communist Party for redress, but is rebuffed and threatened with arrest. Her superiors at the postal service try to reassign her beat to deny her the meager tips she garners from the many pensioners are her route. Squeezed from every angle, Irena eventually snaps. Suddenly, Lonely veers into Godard territory, as Irena resorts to a desperate (and criminal) flight for freedom that resembles a grim, grey, Communist version of Reckless.

Except for a hint of natural realism at its conclusion, Lonely is a relentlessly naturalistic film. It is a visceral indictment of the system that repeatedly betrays Irena, the very sort of underdog it claimed to protect. Maria Chwalibóg gives a heartrending performance in an often unflattering and unsympathetic role. As Jacek, Boguslaw Linda is pathos personified. Considering the state reaction to the film, their performances were brave in more than just an artistic sense.

Watching Lonely is not a happy experience per se, but it is clearly a passionate film. A film that is finely crafted and acted should not be considered depressing, no matter how great the misery and pessimism it depicts. So have a happy new year watching A Lonely Woman this evening at MoMA.