Twenty-one years after winning a Golden Lion for “The Year of the Quiet Sun,” Polish helmer Krzysztof Zanussi is back in competition at Venice with one of his most convincing psychological dramas. “Persona Non Grata” may not be cutting-edge cinema, but such a well-crafted example of classic, old-school filmmaking has its own appeal. Tale of a disillusioned old ambassador wracked by suspicion offers an intriguing peek into the well-heeled but slimy world of career diplomacy. A gray-haired cast, led by Poland’s Zbigniew Zapasiewicz and Russian star Nikita Mikhalkov, further tag it as a fest film for intelligent, older auds.
The presence of Zapasiewicz, as well as the theme of encroaching death, forms a kind of link to Zanussi’s last two, interrelated films, “Life as a Fatally Transmitted Disease” and “Supplement.” In a delicately handled opener, Victor (Zapasiewicz) has just lost his wife, Helena. His old friend, Oleg (Mikhalkov), a Russian diplomat who sympathized with Poland’s Solidarity movement when he was posted to Warsaw 20 years ago, turns up at her funeral.
Grief-stricken Victor demands to know if Oleg and Helena had an affair. He also thinks Oleg may have been a Soviet infiltrator in the anti-Communist movement. Oleg postpones his answer until they meet in Montevideo, Uruguay, where Victor is the Polish ambassador.
Multiple subplots keep the film in knots of doubt and suspicion. A young consul, Waldemar (Andrzej Chyra), and his Russian bride, Oksana (Maria Bekker), arrive in Montevideo on Victor’s recommendation. Welcomed into Victor’s house, the new consul is soon embroiled in a drug-trafficking scandal.
Victor’s outspokenness and drinking get him into hot water with his superiors. When the deputy minister (Daniel Olbrychski) flies to Uruguay to close a helicopter deal, all the plot points come to a head in Zanussi’s beautifully balanced script.
Though set in spy land, pic’s spirit is far from John le Carre, and Zanussi’s interest is always to steer the story back into personal waters. Surprisingly, for a director identified with Catholic themes, Zanussi opts for a layman’s solution in the final scenes.
The lyrical closing scenes stop short of being moving, and it’s a pity they weren’t pumped up more daringly, even at the cost of throwing the film’s delicate balance to the winds. As it stands, the conclusion is satisfying but not exalting.
Very much an actor’s movie, “Persona” pivots on Zapasiewicz’s perf as Victor, the crusty but admirable old ambassador who still clings to his principles in a world gone totally corrupt. Mikhalkov is surprisingly restrained as his Russian counterpart, Oleg, a charmer whose roguish nature threatens to emerge at any moment. Consummate actors Olbrychski and Stuhr are strong in secondary roles.
Film benefits from a fast pace and a nice, light touch. Wojciech Kilar’s stirring score plays a major role in moving Victor from bitter despair to finding the sense of harmony and serenity he lost at his wife’s death. Other credits, from Edward Klosinski’s subtle lensing to Jagna Janicka’s quietly suggestive production and costume design, give a feeling of quiet craftsmanship.