'Foreign Body': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
This provocative commentary on modern Poland blooms in strange dramatic soil  

Veteran Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi examines religion and capitalism in contemporary Eastern Europe

More thematically compelling than dramatically convincing, Foreign Body (Obce Cialo) is an idiosyncratic tale that takes a dim view of the way freedom is exercised in a toxic corporate-dominated post-communist Eastern European world. By vividly paralleling the paths taken by two different women — one who abruptly decides to become a nun and an entirely amoral one who lusts after success at any cost — veteran writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi contrasts the pull of dominant Polish institutions past and present, the church and private industry; at the same time, he posits the provocative notion that a life devoted to God offers more certainty and clarity than one spent in the pursuit of profit and temporal gain. Commercial prospects for this cerebral, mostly English-language film are limited.

One of the most significant figures in Polish cinema since the late 1960s, Zanussi was a regular on the international festival circuit for years with such major works as Family Life, Illumination, Camouflage,The Constant Factor and A Year of the Quiet Sun. Although his work, often for television, has received less global exposure over the past couple of decades, he has continued to average nearly a film per year; he's now made almost 50 dramatic features.

The decisions made by the central characters in Foreign Body are often so bizarre and extreme as to defy credibility, and the lack of much plausible psychological backing for their actions is certainly the script's greatest deficiency.

As it is, one must simply accept that a vibrant 30-something Polish woman, Kasia (Agata Buzek), who's in a seemingly rich romantic relationship with good-looking Italian Angelo (Riccardo Leonelli), has good reasons for dropping him and the modern world to devote the rest of her life to God and the church. She never offers an explicit explanation, but Angelo accepts the sincerity of her decision while still holding out hope that she might change her mind.

Moving to a city near her convent, Angelo unwittingly puts himself in the lap of temptation by joining a big energy company presided over by very hot young women, especially his boss, Kris (Agnieszka Grochowska), and her immediate subordinate, Mira (Weronika Rosati), who, as they put it, submit him to their “gay test” by trying to seduce him. Holding out, he attempts to honor his love for Kasia by remaining abstinent with the help of cold showers and baths.

The core dramatic thrust involves Kris' ruthless scheming to secure a huge international deal with a Russian company, which she bets will propel her to the very top. However, she never seems to actually work, as she mostly drinks and plays manipulative games with Angelo. When she finally accepts that he's not going to submit to her sexual will (she favors horse whips), Kris deliberately sets him up to be arrested for drunken driving and, later, thrown into a Russian prison.

The long arm of the Polish past eventually turns up to torment Kris in the form of a blunt interview her unapologetic communist mother ill-advisedly gives before her death. Kris is a wild, wily, tormented creature, a strange but compelling example of a heedlessly ambitious product of a new world without rules, and she's ferociously played by the electrifying Grochowska.

The main character problem rests with Angelo, whose passivity and unassertiveness with the strong-minded women around him is annoying; at one point, Kasia's father even calls him a “castrato.” This may be Zanussi's comment on how he sees the power relationship between the sexes shifting in the modern world, but the presence of this low-energy man at the center of the otherwise dynamic drama weighs it down.

As puzzling as some of its narrative issues are, Foreign Body offers some unusual perspectives and potent ideas that provide quite a bit to chew on, and it's capped by a challenging and good question: “Absolute freedom. But what shall I do with it?”

Production companies: Tor Film Production, Revolver SRL
Cast: Riccardo Leonelli, Agnieszka Grochowska, Agata Buzek, Weronika Rosati, Slawomir Orzechowski, Chulpan Khamatova
Director: Krzysztof Zanussi
Screenwriter: Krzysztof Zanussi
Producers: Krzysztof Zanussi, Janusz Wachala
Executive producers: Janusz Wachala, Ilya Zakharov
Director of photography: Piotr Niemyjski
Production designer: Joanna Macha
Costume designer: Katarzyna Lewinska
Editor: Milenia Fiedler
Music: Wojciech Kilar

No MPAA rating, 117 minutes