Andrzej Wajda’s “Nastazja” is the sort of jaw-dropping folly that only a great filmmaker would attempt. Indeed, only someone with Wajda’s international prestige would likely be able to convince financiers to back something this audaciously bizarre. Global fest exposure is virtually guaranteed, even though pic will eventually be remembered as a curious footnote in Wajda’s career.
To get some idea how off-the-wall it is, imagine this pitch: Polish-born Wajda directs Kabuki-trained actors in a two-person, Japanese-language dramatization of the final chapter of Dostoevsky’s classic Russian novel “The Idiot.”
Wajda, reportedly an ardent devotee of Kabuki, filmed “Nastazja” in 13 days, on location in Warsaw’s picturesque Pac Palace. Most of the action (for want of a better term) takes place in a single, lushly appointed den where the mercurially virile Rogozhin (Toshiyuki Nagashima) and the frail, epileptic Myshkin (Tamasaburo Bando) confront each other in a long series of free-form conversations about Nastazja, the enigmatic woman they both love.
Pic begins with Rogozhin’s helping the beautiful Nastazja flee the church where she was to wed Myshkin. Once the conversations begin, however, time and space are artfully scrambled, so that the two men re-enact past encounters and clashes. Occasionally, specific exchanges are repeated like recurring movements in a symphony. At other times, Bando (one of Japan’s leading Kabuki stars) dons earrings and a shawl and becomes Nastazja, all the better for his co-star to converse with “her” as well.
Even audiences accustomed to stylized Kabuki traditions will find “Nastazja” fairly tough sledding. Pic is static to an uncomfortable extreme, and bloodless in its abstract storytelling. Some critics will be tempted to make comparisons with “My Dinner With Andre” or “What Happened Was …,” but “Nastazja” makes both those pix seem as thrill-packed as “True Lies.”
And yet, for all that, “Nastazja” often exerts an almost mesmerizing fascination. The bluish-green, smoke-shrouded visual design enhances the pic’s dreamlike quality. For long periods, the eye is captured, the mind enchanted. Pic will, quite literally, put some people to sleep. But others will find themselves riveted by the visual and verbal rhythms. If ever a pic deserved the label “acquired taste,” here it is.
The understated performances of the two leads are more impressive than affecting, but they are everything they should be in this context. Pawet Edelman’s fluid cinematography and Krystyna Zachwatowicz’s evocative production design are strong assets.
“Nastazja” is, if nothing else, a one-of-a-kind experience. Both its harshest critics and its greatest admirers will have no trouble agreeing on that. Unfortunately for Wajda, the former will far outnumber the latter.