Illumination (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1972)
Illumination was the third feature directed by Krzysztof Zanussi, Polish physicist turned filmmaker; “I loved physics” he quips, “but it didn’t love me back, so I turned to cinema”. Its main protagonist is a physics student in search of absolute truth and knowledge, the idealistic Franciszek (played by Stanislaw Latallo) who with his round-framed glasses and docile grin looks not unlike Waldo from that series of children’s books. The film covers roughly a decade of his life, through which its principal themes are no less than the nature of knowledge and life, and the physical and temporal limitations Man is subjected to.
Right from the opening, as Franciszek undergoes a physical examination before graduating with his high school diploma, there’s a frontal shot of him wearing nothing but his boxers, standing before us like a slightly more bookish, less self-confident, 1972 version of Leonardo’s Vitruvian man. This is how Zanussi embarks us onto his odyssey. In a collage style that feels very much of its time (filmmakers as varied as Godard, Makavejev, Oshima and Matsumoto among others also experimented with similar hybrid styles at around the same time), he fuses together at least three different categories of footage: the acted narrative, Franciszek’s ten-year quest and search for illumination before realising absolute answers don’t come as easily as he’d hoped; secondly, actual documentary interviews with real scientists and physics students discussing their fields, their lives, their hopes, which chime and echo with the fictional Franciszek’s own predicament; thirdly Zanussi includes scientific explanations (Franciszek delivers one of the theory of the big bang as an aside, for example), illustrations, diagrams and graphs. Sure Franciszek struggles along the way, but all these inserts also remind us that for a relatively insignificant species in the Universe, we’ve not done too badly in uncovering some of the mysteries of Nature.
Add to this the often atonal, hyperkinetic musical score and the occasional ultra-rapid impressionistic montage, and certainly we have a film made in a kind of filmic language that we don’t quite see anymore today. It is loose, often improvised, and as Zanussi admits was made without reliance on a screenplay. Art is not as rigid and fixed as science, so Illumination does not have to make sense like a set of equations. It takes us along into its flow, and there is so much any of us should be able to relate to in Franciszek’s story that we should be taken into its collage of images, sounds, insights and interviews. I sure was anyway.
Franciszek soon realises that, despite his lofty poetic ideals of truth and knowledge, he is bound to material laws like the rest of us. The spiritual, the soul, whatever one wants to call it, may well exist but there is no mind without matter. When he takes up employment doing psychiatric research in a hospital, he observes the fine invisible line that makes seemingly healthy bodies stop functioning mentally. One scene in which he witnesses an open brain surgery patient’s moods altered by electrodes touching his cerebrum hits home the inextricable link between the physical and the spiritual. This is what I meant earlier by physical limitations. Whenever Franciszek longs to be elevated towards illumination, he is soon brought back down to earth and its everyday worries of bills and financial worries. When his girlfriend becomes pregnant and he convinces her to keep the baby, that doesn’t soothe matters either, as his futile attempts at night-time studying turn into sleepless nights looking after their young son. This turning point is also one of the many big decisions Franciszek must make in his life, throughout the film, and which only reinforce the irreversibility of time, and the tyranny of choice.
He had to choose a topic of study for university, even though his grades at high school were good all round. For his final year of university study, he is then forced to choose one narrow field to specialise in, even though he does not yet feel ready to know which direction he wants to orient himself in. And these choices build up incrementally until with each choice he has burrowed deeper into the trail that will make up what he calls his life. As one of the scientific asides about the peculiarities of the time dimension reminds us, time goes in one direction only, and there is no way back. No wonder then that by the end, after a confrontation with death as a mathematician friend loses his life due to a brain tumour, and a spell away from science seeking answers in a remote monastery, Franciszek feels trapped by time. “I need to make up the time I lost. I need to live intensely and do what would take 5-6 years in the next 3-4” he tells his doctor.
In quantum physics, one of the more offbeat ideas that follows from the theory’s mathematics is the so-called ‘multiverse theory’, the idea that every choice we make branches out into a parallel universe for each of the potential outcomes. We flick a coin, there’s one universe where we get heads, and an alternate parallel one where it’s tails. A similar principle was exhibited by Erwin Schrödinger in his famous thought experiment with the cat that is simultaneously alive and dead until we check. It’s the act of actually carrying out the observation (or of making a choice, whatever) that collapses all the many, even infinite, possibilities into one definite outcome. Franciszek could have chosen to do anything. Any of us have an infinitude of possible options at our disposal. Franciszek discovers this not just in the choices he has to make in his scientific career, but also in his lovelife. He loses one potential girlfriend, and all the alternate parallel life he may have lived with her, and goes down another path. He is obliged to orient himself in one specific direction, when an infinity of others were also possible, and this because of the never-changing direction of Time’s arrow. This is what I mean by the temporal limitations on Man.
But one of Franciszek’s colleagues succinctly suggests a more fruitful approach of looking at it. Ignore the infinity of possibilities lost and of the regrets that come with that, and cherish the single one you had to choose. After much soul-searching it seems at the end Franciszek is closer to applying this lesson, which is easier said than done. A clearly highly gifted young man in a repressive society, he is hopefully that bit closer to having found a productive place within the world. Illumination may tell us that pure enlightenment may be out of reach but all the myriad of thoughts, ideas and truths it resonates in just one hour and a half remind us that we as humans are capable of much too.
Note: This wonderful film is available on DVD from Second Run here, a release and company I can’t recommend enough. One of the extras accompanying the DVD is a short film made by the son of actor Stanislaw Latallo in 1996, telling the tale of the man without whose superbly believable performance as a scientist (not a profession the movies have a long history of getting right) this film would not be the same. Tragically, it also recounts how he lost his life just two years after making the film, in 1974, in a mountaineering accident.