Studio: Film Movement
Directed by Andrzej Wajda

May 15, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Afterimage, the final project of revered Polish director Andrzej Wajda, is a concise, sympathetic, high-minded period drama, and that it might serve to spark a reappraisal of the work of Władysław Strzemiński, the legendary Polish modernist artist whom it profiles, is hardly a shame. Polish superstar Boguslaw Linda's performance as Strzemiński is nuanced and understated, creating a well-rounded portrait of the protagonist.

In other dramatic regards, Afterimage sometimes falters. The film could bear a smidgen more exposition hither and yon for those not familiar with the history: Strzemiński's somewhat cold relationship with his daughter Nika (Bronislawa Zamachowska) is intriguing, but there's nary a word uttered to explain why the artist doesn't seem to care much for her. One is also left to wonder why Strzemiński is not invited to the funeral of his estranged wife, the sculptor Katarzyna Kobro. That said, some of this can be excused away as cinematic "realism", since such issues are often equally nebulous in the real world (though that's a somewhat ironic excuse for a film that rails against the enforced "social realism" under Stalinism, n'est-ce pas?). In depicting the teacher-hero/artist-martyr archetype, complete with students that hang on his every word, Wajda is also often ham-handed in that fashion that Americans will recognize from the likes of Mr. Holland's Opus or Dead Poets Society, but the understated performances keep it from getting quite as mawkish as all that.

Afterimage's biggest issues come, though, on a broader social scale. This is a political film by nature, and it's there that the film suffers the most. Wajda — whose father was murdered by Stalin, and whose own career was hampered in turns by the same oppressive standards of "social realist" art which ruined Strzemiński in his final years — certainly has a right to harbor ill will towards the totalitarian bureaucrats who enforced those laws with little subtlety or sympathy. Wajda spent his career railing against this power dynamic, and it stands to reason that he'd go out doing much the same. Still, by painting this struggle in simple black and white, as a simple matter of "good" and "evil", he has done both his subject and the broader political dialogue a disservice. As with most anti-communist propaganda, Afterimage conveniently ignores that the "decadent west" left its people to starve, too; they just had capitalist glitz and The Invisible Hand of the Market to make it look prettier, to make its ruthless nature look "fair".

An imperfect portrait, then, but hardly an unworthy one. Even if it lacks nuance in some departments, Afterimage offers a legitimate cautionary example and ample food for thought, and is a mostly-appealing tribute to both the artist it profiles to the director for whom it has become a swan song.

Author rating: 6/10

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