Culture | Film & Theatre

Krysztof Zanussi’s ‘Illumination’ (1972) reviewed by Stephen Mason



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Stanislaw Latallo as Franciszek Retman

Illumination follows the story of a young student physicist named Franciszek Retman (Stanislaw Latallo) as he struggles to find his place in the world. Coming of age in the 1960s, Franciszek is an intelligent young man whose career as a physicist looks bright. However this is put on hold early on when his girlfriend, Malgorzata (Malgorzata Pritulak), falls pregnant, leaving him no choice but to find a less inspiring job to care for his new family. He struggles to find a balance between work and family life but his finances begin to strain things. Franciszek’s dedication to his studies – and the anxiety this brings with it – becomes a threat to his very life, as he is diagnosed with Da Costa’s syndrome. Physics has invariably been an escape for Franciszek into another dimension dealing, in his own words, with ‘things that are reliable and explicit.’ Yet it becomes clear as the story unfolds that it’s his personal life – less manageable, and infinitely more chaotic – that will teach him more than his research.

The character of Franciszek, as played by Stanislaw Latallo, is deeply sympathetic, drawing the viewer into the ethical choice he has to make between loyalty to his family and fidelity to his work, one that is never less than involving. As a historical document it’s also interesting: the financial struggles Franciszek and his wife Malgorzata go through to raise their child shine a light on the social problems of Poland in the 1960s, even if Malgorzata herself seems more a cipher than a fully drawn character. The film, brief as it is (89 mins.), could have justified a little extra running-time in the fleshing out of this pivotal role.

illumination family

Yet Illumination is an intriguing mixture of different techniques and styles, which adds up to something unique, even if the changing of gears between one style and another is a little jerky. Using cuts between scientific documentary-footage, straight narrative and dream-scenes, director Krysztof Zanussi gives us real insight into Franciszek’s inner life. The blend of these things – which seems curiously modern – gives the film a feeling of density, of one dimension shedding light on another, and Zanussi’s own scientific knowledge and background shine through. Scenes of the turmoil in Franciszek’s personal life blend intriguingly with scenes of brain-surgery, and his struggles with illness are mixed – again, suggestively – with debates on the destructive potential of nuclear weapons. We also get a sense of science’s dangers, and of Franciszek’s own moral limits, when he gets into an argument with a trucker who supports the Nazi-experimentation on human beings. This is a rich mix, and these parallels are satisfying, and it’s only the abruptness of the transitions – sometimes breaking up the narrative structure rather than helping it along – which seems less than polished. Zanussi himself said that he wanted ‘to go beyond the common narrative scheme’ – and appropriately enough for a film which puts science so much at its centre, there is a feeling of experiment about it, with only some of the experiments working out.

Some viewers may be disillusioned by the film’s final outcome; others may justly complain about the thinness of the characterisation, beyond the complex mix that is Franciszek himself. But in Zanussi’s own words: ‘Illumination is using a language that I must say to some extent I invented, it is the language of this particular film.’ Its originality is unquestionable and so is its strange success at – yes – illumination, and for this reason Zanussi’s film is worth seeing.


Illumination is available from Second Run DVD ( at £12.99.

illumination dvd cover

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