A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984)
Written and directed by Krzysztof Zanussi
Produced by Film Polski
Cinematography by Sławomir Idziak
Edited by Marek Denys
Music by Wojciech Kilar
Distributed by Film Polski, SPI International Poland (TV KinoPolska “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema”)
Many parts of 1984 Poland still looked much as they did during rebuilding efforts in 1946, the period of A Year of the Quiet Sun. Ramshackle buildings and rationing were still so common you could’ve realistically called the film (and life in general) The Forever War. In watching the A Year of the Quiet Sun, you may question how many of the scenes involving struggles to find food and waiting in bread lines were real. Even more upsetting is wondering how many of the dead bodies shown in the film may not have been products of the special effects crew. Each of these aspects lends a disturbing authenticity to the film, possibly the last place you would expect to find love.
Norman (Scott Wilson) himself looks weathered and worn from the war. An American soldier assigned as a driver for a commission investigating the mass execution of U.S. airmen by the Nazis, Norman doesn’t have a regular schedule, which allows him to drive aimlessly through the Polish village. During one such outing, he meets Emilia (Maja Komorowska), who paints inside an old abandoned car. Norman is immediately stricken; Emilia, cautious.
Emilia, a war widow, and her infirm mother (Hanna Skarżanka) share a rundown room in a building that seems to have barely survived several bombing raids. This structure also houses a prostitute named Stella (Ewa Dalkowska) and is frequented by local Communist thugs, spies, and other undesirables. Although they do not understand one another’s language, Norman and Emilia fall in love in the midst of an awful situation, so don’t expect close-ups, transporting gazes into each others’ eyes, or sweeping orchestral music.
Although communication is a challenge, Norman senses that Emilia and her mother share something that goes beyond a mother-daughter relationship. The act of survival has created something beautiful and Norman loves Emilia all the more for it.
Seeking someone to help him communicate, Norman convinces a young Polish officer to translate his yearnings to Emilia, yet the man is too immature and experienced in matters of the heart to be effective. Yet Norman and Emilia seem to understand each other on a certain level. In a brief but wonderful scene, Norman and Emilia speak only in their native language, yet they clearly understand one another. This isn't the magic of cinema; it's two people speaking from sheer humanity and heartfelt desire. Yet one wonders if Norman, a distant and withdrawn man under the best of circumstances, might be attempting to communicate with someone for the first time in his life.
As bad as their living conditions may be, Emilia is reluctant to leave what little home she has and join Norman. For one thing, Emilia’s mother’s infected leg does not bode well for travel. For another, what if Norman receives new orders? During one scene, Emilia’s mother fantasizes about what America might be like. During better times, she’d seen John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and marveled at the vastness and freedom of the American desert, longing for all three of them to be there. It’s a brief moment, but not a throw-away one, since this thought comes back in an extraordinarily powerful way later in the film.
Maja Komorowska, an outstanding actress you may remember from Dekalog (1988), displays great weariness, strong desire, and a spirit that dares not hope too much. She’s strong and vulnerable, cautious, yet unafraid. Komorowska practically gives the audience a treatise on acting just with her eyes. Scott Wilson is one of those actors you’ve seen in dozens of films (In the Heat of the Night, In Cold Blood, The Ninth Configuration, The Right Stuff, Dead Man Walking, Pearl Harbor, The Last Samurai, and more), yet most people probably couldn’t name him. I’d easily put Wilson in my Top 10 list of Most Underrated Actors. Here he portrays Norman as a man filled with melancholy, a sense of justice, a yearning for love, yet remains haunted by his time as a POW. This is a tremendous performance from both actors.
It’s a crime that this film hasn’t been watched and discussed more. It was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and Pasinetti Awards. Because the Polish government boycotted the Oscars after Andrzej Wajda’s political-tinged film Danton (1983) was entered in the Oscar race, A Year of the Quiet Sun was not Oscar-eligible. Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies list, which is how I discovered it.
A Year of the Quiet Sun is available to stream on Kanopy, although the film is in sore need of a restoration. I’m not sure if such a restoration took place for the only physical media release I could find, a Region B Blu-ray from Poland. (The same company also released the title on DVD.) If you have Kanopy, I urge you to watch this stunning film.
Several of these photos come from Boloji, where you’ll find a wonderful review of the film.