Unlike TV shows or paperback books, films aren't noted for being up-to-the-minute in their subject matter. It takes time to make a movie -- time to write a script, rehearse a cast, shoot, edit, dub. . . . You might begin with a topic that's fresh and timely, only to find it's as stale as last month's weather report when your finished picture finally hits the screen.
That's why a producer must anticipate new trends -- not just follow them -- if he or she wants to zero in on current events. From time to time, someone does this with uncanny accuracy. Perhaps the most striking example in Hollywood history was "The China Syndrome," which came out just before the sadly similar nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.
This season, it's two excellent films from Poland that mirror recent headlines with the most immediacy. Man of Marble and The Constant Factor are impressive in themselves, and downright amazing in their prescience concerning events that hadn't yet happened when they were made.
"Man of Marble" (just released in the United States) was directed in 1976 by Andrzej Wajda, whose longtime political awareness has been reflected in such pictures as "Ashes and Diamonds" and "Landscape after Battle." Here his story depicts the difficulties of an artist -- though it could be any type of craftsman -- who adheres to a scrupulous course of activity despite authoritarian opposition.
In following its main characters through confrontations with various bosses, this complex movie pulses with the restless spirit that has led to labor agitation and new trade-union independence in Poland. What's more, the climax actually takes place in Gdansk -- the rallying point for the pivotal Polish strike that didn't happen until four years after "Man of Marble" was made.
In terms of plot, "Man of Marble" is Wajda's "Citizen Kane" -- the story of a young woman making a film about a dubious national celebrity. As we watch her struggle to complete her documentary, which focuses on a forgotten public figure of the Stalinist period, we may be seeing echoes of Wajda's own battle to make "Man of Marble," which waited 13 years before finally receiving the permission needed to begin production, and which was then censored before going into release. Meanwhile, through flashbacks, we watch the career of another idealist (the subject of the film-within-the-film) whose career is boosted and then broken by authoritarian fiat.
According to New Yorker Films, which distributes "Man of Marble" in the United States, some 8 percent of Poland's population rushed to see the film within three months of its premiere there. Clearly, Wajda has captured something very close to the mood of his country, and to the bold experiments it is currently attempting. Western viewers may not catch all the nuances of the picture; the end, for example, seems puzzlingly abrupt. But spectators everywhere can applaud Wajda for his skill and perseverance in taking on this monumental movie to begin with, and carrying it to so high a level of social concern and dramatic excitement.
In another topical breakthrough from Poland, director Krzysztof Zanussi has given us a true masterpiece called "The Constant Factor." Not only is this one of the most brilliant pictures I've seen in years. It's also a vivid evocation of specific unrest in the polish labor force, filmed (like "Man of Marble") before the wave of strikes and protest actions began. In fact, its depiction of labor problems is so pointed that it has obscured, for some critics, aspects of the film that are even deeper and more illuminating.
The hero is a young worker who faces life with all the best equipment: moral integrity, physical courage, intellectual discipline. Yet he learns that some areas of life are simply not susceptible to human control. Some of this lesson is learned on an almost mystical level, to the credit of director Zanussi, who knows how to use the vocabulary of cinema (which is basically materialistic) to manifest enormously subtle and even abstract ideas.
Much of the picture operates on the level of pure plot, however, and here Zanussi succeeds in capturing labor woes that were on the verge of eruption as he proceeded with his filming. Regretably, "The Constant Factor" is not yet in American release, though it was shown at last year's New York Film Festival. Let's hope it enters the worldwide circuit as soon as possible.