Walesa. Man of Hope (Walesa. Czlowiek z Nadziei): Toronto Review

Actor Robert Wieckiewicz offers an amazingly life-like portrait of the charismatic Polish leader in this admiring biopic, though some areas are left disappointingly untouched.

The heroic period of Lech Walesa’s life coincides with the victory of the Polish trade union Solidarity in Andrzej Wajda’s epic recreation.

The controversial figure of Lech Walesa, who rose from humble beginnings as an electrician in the shipyards of Gdansk to become the president of Poland, could aspire to no greater biographer than Andrzej Wajda. His portraits of historical figures in films like Danton and Korczak show his knack for situating personal lives of public figures against the background of their times, and he applies the same strategy to Walesa. Man of Hope. In fact, there is an underlying sense of a master applying a successful technique – one that includes the deft use of newsreels and archive footage alongside actors and historical recreation – rather than the inventive excitement of his unforgettable Solidarity fiction films Man of Marble (1977) and its sequel Man of Iron (1981) in which Walesa appears as himself. The film can expect respectful admiration on the festival circuit and pickups for upscale art film markets after Venice and Toronto. But it's more a film for award nominations than a favorite in the Wajda canon.   

Viewers will be understandably curious to see how the dean of Polish filmmakers will tackle the difficult figure of Walesa. So it comes as something of a let-down to discover that this two-hour film ends in 1989 with the triumph of Solidarity and the downfall of the Communist regime in Poland, which proved to be a fateful chink in the Soviet empire. While a “Part 2” depicting the controversial years in which Walesa became president seems unlikely, if it is ever made it will certainly have to conscript stage actor Robert Wieckiewicz to reprise his leading role. His resemblance to Walesa and imitation of his expressions and physical gestures are nothing short of extraordinary and he is never gratuitously heroicizing. On the contrary, he brings an air of ambiguity to the character, beginning with the first scene set during the 1970 strike at the shipyard, in which trade unionist Walesa was forced to sign papers saying he would report to the police. Though his reason for signing them can hardly be criticized – he wants to be at his wife Danuta (Agnieskza Grochowska) when she goes into labor with their first child – the scene leaves a plot point floating in the air (“One day someone will use this paper against you”) that is never resolved.

Janusz Glowacki’s screenplay is structured around that old chestnut, a journalist interviewing the great man, who then remembers the key events of the past. It can be a tiresome, banal device whose main use is to quickly run through a lot of facts and exposition. Here it is enlivened by the interviewer being the flashy Italian writer Oriana Fallaci, played by dark lady Maria Rosaria Omaggio with chain-smoking pungency and laughable seriousness that recalls a latter-day Krystyna Janda in Man of Marble. Recognizing she’s as tough as he is, Lech responds to her questions with emphatic pomposity and they get along like a house on fire.

Lech is a working-class Pole who still lives in a Gdansk housing project, despite having led ten million workers against the regime. The story begins in 1970, when he was arrested by the police and taken in for interrogation, though he had actually tried to quell the protests. Ten years on, his fame is such that he is called to lead the key strike that would eventually topple Communism in Poland. When many years later Fallaci asks him whether he wasn’t afraid the Soviet tanks would roll in, he shrugs the question off angrily. He is a man of faith, he tells her. The times call for someone like him, because he has the power to control crowds and strikes. “I always know what to say.” “I’m a born leader, a bull leading the herd.”

Cut to Pope John Paul II on TV in 1979, invoking God to come to Poland: “Let your spirit descend on this country.” This is the closest Wajda comes to discussing the role played by the Catholic Church and the Vatican, which supported the strikes, leaving a gaping hole in understanding Walesa and the phenomenal success of Solidarity.

Most of the film is devoted to the huge pan-Poland strike that began in the shipyards in August 1980, leading to the imposition of martial law and then the government’s resignation and the creation of a National Assembly. Lech now has a sizeable family to feed and a wife who keeps urging him to stay out of trouble and keep his job. But he ignores her and, leaving his watch and wedding ring on the table to sell if he doesn’t come back, he storms out the door to lead the strike. It has been organized by intellectuals who have no pull with the workers, and so Lech is crowned King of the Strikers and given a microphone. Even when he makes mistakes, like declaring the shipyard strike over just as the tram workers join in, he is able to correct his aim and come up fighting. Arrest after arrest, he stubbornly fights on.

Danuta is allotted a surprising amount of screen time but, as much as one can sympathize with her frustrations and objective difficulties, she doesn’t come across as a very positive character as far as the revolution is concerned. The fact that Lech completely ignores her wishes and advice is what changed history. Grochowska depicts her as courageous but conservative, a harried mother who struggles daily to keep a flood of strangers out of her house. Eventually (1983) she has to submit to the sadistic humiliation of being strip-searched by the airport police on her return to Poland with her husband’s Nobel Peace Prize, a ferocious insult she faces with dignified exasperation.

There is a thrill of satisfaction in seeing Lech come home from his final imprisonment in a VIP detention center in eastern Poland to cheering crowds that surround his house. It’s a good ending for this upbeat story, though one is left with a distinct feeling that there is a lot more to tell.

Shot on 35mm by ace cinematographer Pawel Edelman, the film dares a simple, down-home look with a tip of the hat to lighting from the past. The editors do a fine job integrating archive footages of food shortages, the strikes and martial law with the private and public life of the protag.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (out of competition)
Cast: Robert Wieckiewicz, Agnieszka Grochowska, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Cezary Kosinski, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Miroslaw Baka, Maciej Stuhr, Dorota Wellman
Production companies: Akson Studio in association with Polish Television, Orange Poland, Canal+ Cyfrowy, National Center for Culture, Polish Film Institute
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Screenwriter: Janusz Glowacki
Producer: Michal Kwiecinski
Executive producers: Katarzyna Fukacz-Cebula, Malgorzata Fogel-Gabrys
Director of photography: Pawel Edelman
Production designer: Magdalena Dipont
Costumes: Magdalena Biedrzycka
Music: Pawel Mykietyn
Editors: Grazyna Gradon, Milenia Fiedler
Sales: Films Boutique
No rating, 127 minutes.