Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

Agnieszka Holland: “A Woman Alone”

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Contemplating Agnieszka Holland’s career I get the sense of a slugger who won’t quit or powerful swimmer heading resolutely upstream.

A few days short of her 65the birthday, Holland made her first films in her native Poland, exiled herself to France after the declaration of martial law, has worked extensively in the US and Europe, most recently in the Czech Republic, with the HBO production “Burning Bush”. She’s written scripts for Andrzej Wajda (“Korczak”), adapted Henry James (“Washington Square”) and directed four episodes for the third season of “The Wire”. Holland’s fictional subjects have included Arthur Rimbaud (“Total Eclipse”), Gary Gilmore (“Shot in the Heart”) and a Slovak woman from Chicago proposed for beatification (“The Third Miracle”). Three of her movies concern the Holocaust; two of them, “In Darkness” and “Angry Harvest”, were nominated for Oscars for Best Foreign Film. The third, “Europa, Europa,” created an international scandal when the German Film Export Union refused to submit to the Academy.

It’s a tumultuous, politically-charged career but for my money Holland’s masterpiece was produced for Polish TV in 1981 and has never been commercially released in the US. “A Woman Alone” is showing once on November 22 at the Tribeca Film Center as part of the series “Different Ages, Different Voices: Polish Women in Film.” (The series opens November 21 at the Museum of Modern Art with the local premiere of “Baby Blues,” a prize-winner feature by Kasia Rosłaniec; other films, showing at the Tribeca Film Center, include three documentaries on women by Krzysztof Kieślowski and “In the Name…”, a new feature by Małgośka Szumowska concerning a gay priest.)

So ferocious it makes her other films seem operettas by comparison, “A Woman Alone” is set on the eve of martial law—a stunning evocation of ignorance, superstition, poverty and disorder that attacks virtually every institution in communist Poland while suggesting a stratum of society impervious to reform. The film’s eponymous heroine is a meek, middle-aged mail carrier who lives with her son in a miserable shack by the railroad tracks on the outskirts of a provincial city. Afraid to join Solidarity because the Party got her this hovel, Irena (Maria Chwalibog) is scarcely more than a beast of burden—albeit an idiotic optimist exploited by everyone including the parish priest, tormented by her child, ex-husband and the local PTA, as well as by her drunken neighbors, themselves driven mad by overcrowding.

Taking up with a disabled loser (the superb Bogaslaw Linda who subsequently played Saint-Just in Wajda’s “Danton,” written by Holland, and went to became a Polish leading man), Irena orchestrates an escape of transcendent futility. Holland directs this grub’s eye view of a dissolving society with her customary energy. The cramped, funky frames have a convulsive force that belies the hopelessness of her sardonic, ballad-like tale—the appropriately miserablist denouement has an echo of Luis Buñuel’s “Los Olvidados”.

When I first the movie at the Museum of Modern Art in 1987, I wrote that was steeped in “a humor so corrosive that, if Holland, could bottle it, it could dissolve the state apparatus overnight.” Twenty-six year later, the vision has scarcely mellowed.

Images: Polish Film Institute

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