'Blindness' ('Zacma'): Film Review | TIFF 2016

Zacma Blindness - Still 2 -H 2016
Courtesy of TIFF
Holy Communion vs. Unholy Communism.

Based on real events, Ryszard Bugajski's TIFF-launched drama centers on a sadistic Polish Communist interrogator haunted by the horrors of her past crimes.

Polish director Ryszard Bugajski belongs to that cohort of veteran European filmmakers who grew up under Soviet Communism, a primal wound for some, an undying source of creative inspiration for others. The director of Blindness once worked alongside Andrzej Wajda, resisting pressure to become an informant for the secret police. Shot in secret during a martial law clampdown, his 1982 debut feature Interrogation was officially banned at home, but became an award-winning sensation abroad. Bugajski fled into exile in Canada, where he has now returned to launch his latest bitter post-mortem on Poland's 20th century blues.

Premiering in TIFF this week, Blindness is built around an electrifying central performance by Maria Mamona, who also happens to be Bugajski's wife. She plays Julia Brystiger, a real-life state enforcer who led brutal purges against political and religious dissidents during Poland's most repressive Stalinist period. Film festivals, Cold War historians and Poles of an older generation will be the main target audience for this sober and well-crafted period piece, which probably contains more eroticized crucifixion imagery than any other movie outside the Mel Gibson canon.

An avowed atheist with Jewish roots, Brystiger was actively engaged in the "war against religion" in 1950s Poland, arresting and persecuting dozens of Catholic priests. Nicknamed "Bloody Luna," she became notorious for her sadistic interrogation methods, personally participating in sexualized torture. At least one of her victims died from his wounds. In later life, she quit the security services and reinvented herself as an author. Apparently remorseful over her past crimes, she also began volunteering at a church-run school for vision-impaired children outside Warsaw, eventually converting to Catholicism.

A speculative drama about Brystiger's later years, Blindness begins with the former torture queen arriving at the blind school, brittle and nervy as she seeks an audience with the Primate of Poland (Marek Kalita), a cardinal whose arrest she once ordered. But faced with stonewalling from Sister Benedicta (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska) and frosty equivocation from Father Cieciorka (Janusz Gajos), she begins to suspect that even the most devout Christians may not be willing to turn the other cheek.

Stranded at the school overnight, Brystiger falls prey to some of the petty indignities routinely imposed on ordinary Polish citizens. Undercover agents shadow her movements, reporting back to their faceless bosses. Leering police goons demand to see her papers before casually groping her body. Meanwhile, she is assailed by shameful memories of her former victims, notably a defiant prisoner who pointedly gives his name as "Jesus Christ," and seems to have the miraculous powers to back up his claim. Part flashback, part fever dream, part hallucination, these scenes blur the line between passion play and supernatural horror movie.

Loading his moral parable with messianic imagery, Bugajski is hardly subtle in his cheerleading for Catholicism over the false gods of Communism. But he does tease out some interesting parallels between these two faith systems with their shared culture of confession and original sin, holy texts and infallible truths. Somber and slow, yet darkly compelling, Blindness adds another solid chapter to Bugajski's growing canon of cautionary lessons from Polish history. Cinematographer Arkadiusz Tomiak clothes this handsome retro-drama in appealing vintage-postcards tints while Shane Harvey's autumnal score is a minor-key beauty.

Production companies: RB Film, Telewizja Polska S.A.
Cast: Maria Mamona, Malgorzata Zajaczkowska, Janusz Gajos, Marek Kalita
Director, screenwriter, producer: Ryszard Bugajski
Cinematographer: Arkadiusz Tomiak
Editor: Milenia Fiedler
Music: Shane Harvey
Production designer: Andrzej Halinski
Sales company: The Society for Arts
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
No rating, 114 minutes