Any long, celebrated artistic career is allowed a folly or two, and at age 75, Krzysztof Zanussi has come up with a whopper in “Foreign Body.” This ludicrous potboiler expresses dismay at sinking modern mores in the most simplistic terms imaginable, with saintly Catholics on one side and depraved corporate villainy on the other. It just might have worked as a clearly outsized parable, but the flat, earnest execution of a haplessly trashy script — one that might as well have originated with Harold Robbins or Sidney Sheldon — only underlines how out of touch the veteran helmer-scenarist is from the 21st-century milieus he hopes to expose. His name will ensure further fest travel, but this multinational production will have a tough time finding critical or commercial support even in its countries of origin.
Pic begins in Italy, where Angelo (Riccardo Leonelli) is bidding a most reluctant farewell to his Polish g.f. Kasia (Agata Buzek). Despite their mutual love (and faith), she is following through on her intention to enter a convent. Unwilling to give up on a future together, he takes a job in Poland in order to be nearby during the preparatory year before she actually takes her vows. That job is a junior-executive position at a multinational energy company where his immediate supervisor is she-devil Kris (Agnieszka Grochowska), a classic fearful caricature of female empowerment and sexuality who manipulates those around her because she can, and emits an evil laugh at every opportunity.
In her ruthless ambition, Kris routinely orders underlings to provide sexual favors, commit theft and blackmail. Yet she seems determined to destroy the all-too-meaningfully named Angelo not for career benefit, but simply because his inherent compassion and goodness (after meeting a beggar by chance, he insists on helping the man’s invalid father get a new respirator) challenge her sadistic immorality.
Grochowska tries not to camp up this Joan Collins-worthy upscale ogress (who at one point has poor Angelo sent to Russian prison), but this and the film’s other attempts to play its flaming melodrama in a naturalistic key only emphasize the absurdity of the proceedings. Zanussi has a viable basic point here about how far the corporate bottom line has dragged us from empathetic humanity. But well before Kris expresses that moral vacuum by using a riding crop on buffed, naked male prostitutes, “Foreign Body” has jumped the shark. Pretentious dialogue (most of it awkwardly spoken by cast in phonetic English), dangling plot threads and a minor character’s telepathy are but a few of the many head-scratching missteps here.
While others at least have the excuse of one-dimensional characters with limited screen time, Leonelli is stuck trying to maintain a concerned straight face thoughout. (Sometimes even he can’t believe it, as when this supposedly exemplary average citizen outwits the police in a screeching car chase with all the stone-cold bravado of Ryan Gosling in “Drive.”) The production’s conventional gloss in design and tech departments only heightens the heavy-handed improbability of its content.