'Afterimage' ('Powidoki'): Film Review | TIFF 2016

Afterimage -Still 2- H 2016
Courtesy of TIFF
A compelling portrait, despite some broad brushstrokes.

Polish maestro Andrzej Wajda pays tribute to an avant-garde artist who fell foul of stifling Stalinist rules in this Toronto world premiere.

The veteran Jedi master of Polish cinema, Andrzej Wajda revisits another bitter episode from his homeland's brutal history in Afterimage. His subject this time is the avant-garde painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski, a martyr to philistine Stalinist orthodoxy, but there may also be a hint of personal identification in this love letter from one dissident Polish artist to another.

At 90 years old, Wajda's filmmaking methods are inevitably a little creaky. Afterimage finds him in starchy autumnal form, taking potshots at a familiar enemy. But Stalin murdered his father, after all, so this undimmed animosity is entirely understandable.  World-premiering in TIFF this week, Wajda's latest period piece is more prose than poetry, but his solid six-decade track record should help grab further festival attention and niche distribution.

As a young soldier, Strzeminski (Boguslaw Linda) was badly wounded in World War I, eventually losing an arm and a leg from his injuries. Linda has a full set of limbs, but he becomes a convincing double amputee thanks to some impressively unobtrusive visual effects. To their credit, both director and star make this disability almost incidental to both character and plot, never milking it for tearjerking melodrama.

In civilian life, Strzeminski became a celebrated abstract painter, teacher and lifelong champion of modern art, working alongside Malevich and Kandinsky. In the period covered in Afterimage, which is titled after one of his artistic theories, he is in his late 50s and an inspirational lecturer at the Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz, an institution he helped to found.

But the pendulum of history is about to swing against Strzeminski as Poland embraces a strict new Stalinist code of Socialist Realism, which decrees that all art must "meet the needs of the people." Abstract painters are suddenly suspect due to their "formalism" and "American cosmopolitanism," serious accusations which can ruin careers and even lives.

When Strzeminski defiantly stands up against these new strictures, his political overlords punish him severely. First they strip him of his job, then his colorful room at the Lodz art museum, then his membership to the collective which allows him to buy paint. In failing health, he is reduced to poverty, starvation and begging for menial work. One of the few jobs he can find, ironically, is painting giant banners of Stalin in the heroic socialist manner.

Wajda presents his protagonist as a brave, almost saintly resistance fighter for artistic freedom. Which is a perfectly valid dramatic theme, but too blandly and cautiously addressed in Afterimage. For example, Strzeminski has an estranged wife, the sculptor Katarzyna Kobro, but she is not seen onscreen and we never learn why she bans him from her funeral. He also has a prematurely wise teenage daughter, Nika (Bronislawa Zamachowska), whom he consigns to a children's home with barely a second thought. "She will have a hard life," he shrugs. Again, no context, no explanation.

Meanwhile, Strzeminski's students adore him unquestioningly, risking their future careers by continuing to attend his extracurricular seminars, and treating his every utterance like messianic genius: "He spoke like a prophet! He opened my eyes to the world!" Welcome to Dead Painters Society. Inevitably, among this thinly sketched gaggle of disciples, there is a young woman who falls in love with Strzeminski, Hanna (Zofia Wichlacz). His blunt rejection of her seems callous and, once more, poorly explained. A little more realistic human complexity might have added much-needed depth to Andrzej Mularczyk's bald, didactic screenplay.

In its favor, Afterimage is as elegantly assembled as all of Wajda's work: beautifully lit, tastefully art-directed, and handsomely shot by Pawel Edelman, who was Oscar-nominated for his work on Polanski's The Pianist. Ablaze with abstract expressionist designs, the credits sequences are witty and colorful. The decision to use music by the late Andrzej Panufnik is also inspired. Panufnik was a modernist composer who defected from Poland to escape the same stifling climate of Socialist Realism that ruined Strzeminski.

Of course, there is a certain irony about a film that champions avant-garde art using deeply conventional costume drama methods, and which decries simplistic propaganda while presenting Polish history as a binary conflict between noble heroes and thuggish villains. But after 90 years and more than 50 films, Wajda has earned the right to make stagey period pieces like Afterimage, minor codas to a gloriously symphonic career.

Production companies: Akson Studio, Telewizja Polska, NINA, PISF, Tumult Foundation
Cast: Boguslaw Linda, Bronislawa Zamachowska, Zofia Wichlacz, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Maria Semotiuk, Szymon Bobrowski, Paulina Galazka
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Screenwriter: Andrzej Mularczyk
Producer: Michal Kwiecinski
Cinematographer: Pawel Edelman
Editor: Grazyna Gradon
Music: Andrzej Panufnik
Production designer: Marek Warszewski    
Costume designer: Katarzyna Lewinska
Sales company: Films Boutique, Berlin
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Masters)

No rating, 98 minutes