My last film at this year's HKIFF,Obce (Foreign Body) (2014)(色) happens to be my first film from Krzysztof Zanussi (1939), an Italian-Polish director who studied physics, philosophy and film making in Poland and the maker and director of a large number of documentaries, TV drama and feature films some of which had won international awards at Moscow, Venice, Chicago, Valladolid, Locarno and is now a professor of film making at the European Graduate School in Switzerland and professor at the Silesian University in Katowice.
The film starts with a pair of young lovers Angelo (Riccardo Leonelli) and Katarzyna (Agata Buzek) ("Kassia") meeting in the hills and beaches of Italy. For some reasons, Kassia, who comes from Poland, wants to have a go at being a nun and enters a convent there. Her father (Slawomir Orzechowski), probably someone with some influence in Poland, arranges for Angelo to work in a power company close to the convent, hoping thereby that Angelo will be near enough to convince her daughter to change her mind. As a devout Muslim, Angelo refrains from making love to Kassia before marriage, because he respect her decision as a devout Catholic. Since she is on trial for just one year, Angelo is prepared to wait until she changes her mind. In the meantime, he works under Kris Nilska ( Agnieszka Grochowska) his young and attractive new boss in the Polish division of a power company, a lady drunk with a different kind of "power", believing that with sufficient money, you can do practically anything and overcome all forms of resistance, a go-getter prepared to stop at nothing for corporate advancement, by hook or by crook.
The film is about their conflict. Angelo is straight and principled and is full of compassion and an ardent desire to relieve the suffering of those around him. We're shown how he helps a young man begging for money outside an opera house to buy a medical machine to help his bedridden father, first by applying on his behalf to the Polish government for the needed funds and when that fails, by setting up a corporate charity to help him do so and how he resists Kris' seduction. We are also shown how in order to win an important government contract for building a power station in Russia, Kris told her subordinates Mira Tkacz (Agnieszka Grochowska) who shares her values, to seduce the engineer of their competitor to get information on the price and other conditions of their tender. She succeeds. Angelo knows about it but refuses to participate. He spends his spare time in small prayer groups and occasionally visits Kassia in the convent.
In the meantime,we are shown how Kris visits her mother Róza Nilska (Ewa Krasnodebska), an unrepentant Nazi sympathizer, who intends despite Kris' objections, to give an interview to a newspaper reporter disclosing what she did during the WWII and why . As the newspaper reporter was about to begin, Kris stops it but too late, the journalist has taken a photograph of the statement her mother has prepared. Kris then attempts to bribe the reporter not to publish his story but fails. The story is published. She concludes that perhaps the money she gave was considered too little to be tempting. To relieve her stress, Kris tries hypnosis therapy herself and then engages the same hypnotist to work with her mother and finds out that even under hypnosis, she is as convinced that there is nothing wrong with what she is doing in the same way that her mother considers hers entirely right. Her mother's disclosure results in her being indicted for war crimes but on the day before she faces trial, she dies. Has she been poisoned because Kris thinks that the publicity may have some adverse effect upon her company's bid for the government contract in Moscow or on her family honor?
In Moscow, she asks Angelo to deliver a briefcase of what he is made to believe contains important supplementary tender documents to the the President of the Selection Committee deciding on whom to award the Russian government power plant contract. To do so, Angelo has to drive at breakneck speed to catch him in his own car although he hasn't got a valid driver's license. After some difficulties, he succeeds but in the process is caught by the Russian police for speeding and driving without a license and detained. Unbeknown to him, the briefcase actually contains bribe money deliberately put in there by Kris. Whilst in jail, he sees how fellow prisoners are treating each other and tries to defend one of them from being sexually harassed by the others in the same cell and got a sound beating. Kris got him a company lawyer who advises him to sign a confession statement containing some lies. He staunchly refuses. He got out of jail, however, only because his mother begs the local bishop in Italy to intervene on his behalf in Catholic Poland.
Just before he leaves for the trip to Moscow, Angelo sees Katarzyna for the last time after the latter asks from a very understanding mother superior for permission to leave the convent shortly before she is to take her final vows. Angelo tries his best to persuade her to give up. She refuses. Then the day before she is to take her final vows, he goes there again but no one opens the door to him and he has to shout her name in the rain. It was useless. When the film ends, we see Katarzyna taking her vows. However, before the ceremonies ends, her father gets up from his church bench, passes by Angelo and rebukes him for being a "eunuch" not even able to get the woman she loves to change her mind.
Kris' power company got the Russian government contract and Kris awaits eagerly for her company's announcement of an impending high level appointment. When she watches the TV announcement, it is her female assistant, not she who gets to be head of the Russian division. She talks to Angelo reiterating how she loves him and had plans to rape him in Russia but somehow decides not to do so and now that she fails to get the coveted appointment, she doesn't give a shit about what happens to the company any more. Will Angelo accept her, now that Katarzyna has become a nun? It's anybody's guess.
Foreign Body is a film as much about the fate and values of Kris as about modern day Poland following its independence from Russia: the conflict between the sacred and the profane, between the old and the new, between Catholic and atheistic capitalist values, between freedom and responsibility, between right and duty. At the closing scene, she asks Angelo the question a bit similar to the one Dostoievski posed years ago in his novel Brothers Karamazov: what can one do with absolute freedom, now that God is dead. Is everything permissible? Is the director hinting that in the end, spiritual values may somehow still have the capacity to serve as the basis of a certain meaning to the life of an individual free to decide how he/she should live his/her life, even for an apparently most radical follower of the new religion of money and personal power? Is he hinting that love is not as Kris says, merely something physiological and that even in post-Communist Poland, principles still mean something? Whatever the answer to that question may be, credit must be given to Wojciech Kilar, who wrote the original music for the film, a haunting piano melody which serves to contrast the steely rational calculation of the world Kris inhabits with its ultimate emptiness and futility, with the opaque and mysterious traditional world inhabited by Kassia and Angelo, a world which perhaps Kris may never completely understand or perhaps never wants to understand.