Krzysztof Zanussi’s coolly compelling new film Ether, which had its U.S. premiere Wednesday at SBIFF, is one of the more fascinating films on the festival roster, partly on structural, psychological, and spiritual grounds. The eminent Polish director, now 80, also gave us one of the more engaging Q&As in a festival rich with strong post-screening filmmaker discussions.
Before the screening, Zanussi set the historical-philosophical stage for the film, asserting, “I believe the World War I was the end of an epoch when humanity thought life would be better with science. We now know that is not true.” He added that, in a life going back to just before WWII, “I’ve seen evil as a conscious choice by those who enjoy seeing others suffer.”
Compared to other more conventional and formula-abiding films in the program, Ether engaged eyes, mind, and — more challengingly — questions of the soul and moral compass. The protagonist (Jacek Poniedziałek) is a loathsome anti-hero, a seemingly amoral doctor in the Russian empire circa 1912, who dispatched cruelty in the name of his self-assigned research project to experiment with the effects of ether on patients, with collateral damage along the way.
“Science can do what religion has failed to do,” he tells well-heeled guests at a party, “science can make humankind happy.” In a story alluding to his enabling of evil, the doctor eludes execution and is sent to Siberia where he is folded into the service of the military in the build-up to the “Great War.”
A straight synopsis doesn’t begin to tell the whole story, however, in this creatively-wrought film with a more linear “Known Story” element and a later “Secret Story” section. In effect, the latter restructures our memory of the former, but also supplies a spiritual subplot that turns the story into an almost Biblical or Faustian parable, in retrospect. It’s a filmic trick with a profound purpose, to ignite our sense of morality and metaphysical understanding beneath the rational surface of the film itself.
Post-screening, the director expanded on the theme of science vs. more metaphysical matters, from the perspective of an artist who started out studying physics. “Science tried to replace religion,” he said. “Where there is a mystery, there is room for God… as Einstein said, ‘he who does not recognize mystery is blind and deaf.’”
Evil rears its head in multiple ways in Ether ultimately becoming a pivot point in the film. On the subject, Zanussi commented, “I don’t like the misunderstood quote by Hannah Arendt, about the ‘banality of evil.’ Adolf Eichman’s evil was not banal. His crime was cosmic.”
Clearly, the director is dealing with a transitional historical era of a century ago, before the succession of “great wars” — WWI begetting WWII begetting Cold War, and onward. But he hopes that his film both relates its themes to our current moment, awash in the perils of evil in high places, but realized that it is a challenge to reach beyond his “art film” audience. “Our culture today is deprived of metaphysics,” he summed up. Zanussi is one director seeking to address that lack, and “seeking” is an operative word in his aesthetics.
Films to See: Comedy is a fragile and fickle thing, subject to the sense of humor of the beholder. For this viewer, the film in the program so far with the greatest laughs-per-minute is the Italian film whose very title hints at the black comic airs to come: Put Grandma in the Freezer. But don’t blindly believe me: At the Metro screening last night, the audience burst into titters and guffaws just shy of “rolling in the aisles” convulsions. Sorry, grandma.
I was instantly reminded of the irreverent comic high jinx of the 1987 American comedy Throw Momma from the Train, but directors Giancarlo Fontana and Giuseppe Stasi have cooked up a uniquely madcap romp with Put Grandma, with true love in the wings. Our female heroines resort to freezing grandma for financial/pension reasons, doggedly pursued by tax policeman (Fabio De Luigi), who is fully smitten with the beautiful grandma-freezing perpetrator (the magnetic Miriam Leone, the Miss Italia beauty queen in 2008, and fine comic actress). A crackling editing pace, sharp visuals, and comic timing are all in check here, plus the guilty pleasure of watching a comedy in which grandma’s corpse is put through many slapstick paces, including repeated defrosting and a downhill joyride ending in a dead lover in a compromising position. Don’t ask. Just watch.
Ethan Hawke’s star keeps rising and falling with the years, but he’s on a high at the moment, having delivered possibly his best screen performance yet with his work at the crux of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (truly an Oscar-worthy turn, but who’s counting?) Currently, he’s dramatically duking it out with Paul Dano in Broadway’s revival of Sam Shepard’s True West.
Hawke can be a loveable scamp, as well, as we see in the salty-sweet crime romp Stockholm. Quicker than you can say Dog Day Afternoon, he plays the swaggering but secretly romantic character who seizes hostages in a large Swedish bank to get his criminal friend freed from jail. He also loves Bob Dylan, and at one point forces a captive guard to sing a Dylan song in the walky-talky. It’s a true story, from 1973, that became the basis of the “Stockholm syndrome,” in which a hostage falls under the spell of their captor — the Patty Hearst story in a nutshell.
But for all the edgy aspects, bluster, and gun-waving, the story somehow remains light at heart and even tender in moments, especially regarding his romantic entanglement with a captive (Noomi Rapace). Director Rob Burdreau told the “breakfast club” audience at the Metro theater yesterday that “the story is absurd, so I took a black comedy approach to it. So, feel free to laugh.” That we did.
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