The tense, metaphysical drama “Blindness” finds 73-year-old Polish writer-director Ryszard Bugajski (“Closed Circuit”) still working at the height of his powers and revisiting some of the same themes and situations of his harrowing masterpiece “Interrogation.” In “Blindness,” he visualizes a 1962 meeting between Julia Prajs Brystygier (Maria Mamona, stellar), the sadistic head of Department V in the Stalinist-era Ministry of Information who was in charge of persecuting the clergy, and the Polish Primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński (Marek Kalita), a man whose 1953 arrest she facilitated. Remarkable for its ability to put viewers inside the head of its complicated protagonist, “Blindness” is a high quality, old-style arthouse drama that will be most appreciated offshore by older, educated viewers.
By 1962, Brystygier, one of the most infamous people in post-war Poland, has tried to remake her life. She works at a publishing house and has even written a novel. But at the age of 59, a mental crisis strikes, leaving her at a moral crossroads. Can she, born Jewish, a longtime student of philosophy, a self-proclaimed agnostic, an ardent Communist and a person who bears responsibility for some inarguably terrible deeds, find forgiveness and redemption in what life remains to her? She drives from Warsaw to a Church-run school for the blind in Gorki, where, with the help of Sister Benedicta (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska), she hopes to meet the Primate, whose past words made a deep impression on her.
While she waits for her chance of an audience with the Primate, the proud, constantly-smoking Brystygier endures humiliations, large and small. A blind priest (Bugajski stalwart Janusz Gajos), who lost his sight in prison during one of her purges of the clergy, insinuates that her desire to make penance is not sincere and implies that she remains in touch with her former superiors. Someone punctures two tires on her car. The higher-ups on the school’s staff don’t want to speak to her, but some of the groundsmen are spying on her every move. In a chilling scene that demonstrates Brystygier’s still extant sangfroid, two police officers accost her at a bar, demand her identity papers, and leeringly feel her up while patting her down. She’s so cool that you’d never know that she was carrying a gun in her purse and using one of many aliases.
As her meeting is continually postponed, thoughts, memories, and hallucinations fill Brystygier’s mind. She thinks back to the time she was torturer-in-chief, abusing a young man who gave his name as Jesus Christ, burning him with lit cigarettes and beating him with a whip. She recalls leaving her only child with her mother in order to dedicate herself to her job. She understands too late that the world is not as simple as she once believed and fears to admit that the ideology she used to justify her horrific actions was based on a false premise.
With her elegant clothing, perfectly kempt hair and makeup, and her haunted looking eyes, the amazing Marmona (the director’s wife) dominates every frame of the film from the very beginning. You can practically smell her Chanel No. 5 perfume. Even though viewers are privileged to experience her thoughts and visions, they, like the blind priest, must admit she remains something of a mystery. How could a woman who received a doctorate in philosophy from the U. of Lviv, who studied at the Sorbonne and even modeled for Picasso, do the terrible things that she did?
Yet another condemnation of the evils of Communism from Bugajski, his clever screenplay, which could also work as a theater piece, builds sympathy for Brystygier, particularly among those unfamiliar with her reputation, by allowing audiences to experience her present anguish and mortification. The conversations about faith are fascinating, including those that Brystygier has with Sister Benedicta, who, before the war, was a Jewish poet. Bugajski also includes a sharp critique of Polish anti-Semitism.
The film’s technical elements are outstanding, with cinematographer Arkadiusz Tomiak’s intimate camera stealthily tracking around the characters. The period production design and costuming are spot-on, as is the unsettling score by Canadian composer Shane Harvey.