Trying to fathom Foreign Body is a bit like trying to unpick an intellectual and emotional rant.
Director Krzysztof Zanussi’s highly ambitious morality tale attempts to explore the spiritually bereft corporate world via two star-crossed lovers, but fails in the process, as the sermon gets lost in too much convoluted detail.A shame, as the narrative includes potentially interesting stories – the mainline plot revolving around a couple who meet at a religious convention, with subplots involving a power hungry sadist with an ailing mother (a political leper from the communist era), and a young beggar caring for his sick father.
These threads however never manage to meld or get anywhere, and the characters appear such ciphers one feels they would be better placed in a more explicit allegory, or that their very human stories would fare better amidst more meaningful philosophical debate. All we end up with are clunky theosophical sound bites – ‘Sometimes the truth sounds like a formula and lies sound more truthful’ – which bounce off the strangely disconnected actors.
There are problems from the very beginning. The saccharine opening portrayal of Polish Kasia (Agata Buzek) and Italian Angelo (Riccardo Leonelli) before they part is misleading, the film thereafter descending into a hundred tangents: Kasia intends to become a nun and Angelo gets a job in the cutthroat corporate world to be near her. It’s all melodramatic and improbable and the actors, given the pretentious dialogue, struggle to keep the momentum going. Occasionally watching the film one gets glimpses of what Zanussi is aiming at: a penetrating religious satire on the soulless and shrivelling effects of corporate capitalism and – more contentiously – the responsibility it carries for denaturing women as maternalistic care-givers. Angelo (‘angel’, presumably) is a Christ figure and characters like the beggar stand for biblically suffering men of wisdom. Yet both the worlds of business and religious devotion, as Zanussi depicts them, ring false, and his attempts to bring the story-lines together seem jarringly contrived and extraneous to the central plot.
There are brief flashes of wit – the beggar’s placard reads ‘ ‘Can you spare coins for beer or some more coins for very expensive beer’ – yet these are the exception. Far more common are scenes completely wide of the mark: a beleaguered Angelo, tormented by female coworkers for wearing a forbidden papal ring, is seen suddenly prostrating himself on the ground and praying to Mecca, while a miracle which takes place seemingly at Angelo’s hand at the film’s end fails completely to move. The misogynistic tone in presenting all the female characters as toxic, dysfunctional and depraved is exotic at first, but that too falls under dreary moralistic sexism, the sadistic female boss, Kris (Agnieszka Grochowska) and her amoral sidekick Mira (Weronika Rosati), quite overblown as characters. Kris likes her S &M and Mira likes her Morning-After pills and their humourless portrayal as evil vixens goes as far as showing them orchestrating Angelo’s brief torture and imprisonment. Even the angelic Kasia gets smeared as Angelo’s ‘Fallen Eve’ when she finally abandons him for the church.
At the very end, we’re left without any enlightening debate about spirituality nor the least interesting existential conundrum to mull over. Perhaps if the stories had been edited as a mosaic it could all have hung together, but aside from the strong performance by Bartlomiej Zmuda as the beggar, the project seems poorly written and, perversely, soulless too: one that will thankfully be drowned out by the rest of Zanussi’s great body of work in an otherwise illustrious career.
Krysztof Zanussi’s Foreign Body shows on 12th April at the ICA, The Mall, as part of the Kinoteka 13th Polish Film Festival, supported by the Polish Cultural Institute.