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Perfect Number (Liczba doskonała)

A touching confessional film from a veteran Polish filmmaker whose life-long obsession has been the exploration of science, vocation and personal relationships – live from the Tallinn Black Nights Festival


Veteran Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi finds himself returning to the key subjects of his filmography in a new poetic film-meditation about mortality, faith and science. While similar to another late-career Zanussi film, Life as a fatal sexually-transmitted disease, Perfect Number summons some of the old tricks and lifelong preoccupations of the once-aspiring scientist and philosopher, in a way that seems to pay homage to the cycle of films which have now become Zanussi’s classical period, consisting inter alia of his debut The Structure of Crystal (1969), Family Life (1971), Illumination (1973), Camouflage (1978), The Constant Factor (1980). His films are usually softly humorous while, at the same time, riddled with topics one associates with ‘heavy’ and austere European cinema, with a particularly Polish flavour.

The central questions that drive the narrative here are: what comes after success? At what price do we succeed? Regardless of the willed outcome, whether it is fame, money, art or ‘scientific truth’, what dimensions of life will be missed once success is achieved and emptiness takes over? No other filmmaker has been able to represent ‘the man of science’ as Zanussi has, academia in its variegated forms being a subject Zanussi holds close to his heart. Most of his films feature young scientists, researchers, medical students, often caught in between the persistent duties of their doctoral theses, careers, ambitions, and the demands of friendship, family life, love. Indeed, the image of life outside of science is always a suspended, virtual one.

The choice of the main protagonists is telling: an ageing capitalist with a guilty conscience, and his cousin, a shameless narcissist and mathematical genius, unable to surrender to the affections of a young lady for fear that a relationship may disrupt the delicate balance of his life. The encounter between the two is set up by Joachim after a bizarre incident in Israel, where a bomb sets off in a café, apparently leaving him unwounded while killing all others. Why, he asks, was he left alive? Especially, he, who had committed many (countless) sins, who had cheated, stolen land, exploited people? God must be cruel if God has let him live. And thus, if God is evil, then God cannot exist. Such is the content of his philosophical awakening, through which he establishes himself as a reluctant, angry atheist, who, by virtue of his resentment towards God can only reveal a disavowed and inescapable faith. And so the incident in Israel, the failed encounter with life’s end, is the detonator of a desperate quest for meaning in a life empty of love. In possession of this newly-acquired wisdom, Joachim tries to grow closer to his cousin, who, through this new friendship, will also find some kind of enlightenment. In this sense, Perfect Number is more than the confession of an ageing filmmaker, but a deeply-felt warning that stems from the fear of having wasted one’s life focusing on the wrong things.

However, for a film that concerns itself with representing the transcendental and the divine, the narrative arcs it creates are mostly predictable, what’s more, they make manifest a strange sort of moral orthodoxy. The lessons are way too simple: to uphold what is truly worthwhile in life is to value the bonds between human beings, in other words, old-fashioned love. All other yearnings are condemned as corrupt, for they stem from a fundamental human narcissism: money, ‘truth’, knowledge. The film thus unveils a somewhat Catholic message, whereby all sources of pleasure, all forms of willing, and maybe more hedonistic, self-serving endeavours, are to be tossed aside and forgotten in favour of selflessness. This message is hammered so repeatedly that one would not be surprised if Zannussi pulled out printed banners featuring glossy slogans like ‘Love is all you need’ which he would then hang above his actors’ heads.

Zanussi also depicts the realm of the divine in awkward and slightly sentimental ways. Although the characters make a tribute during one scene to the much more mysterious Dekalog I, in which the death of a child could be interpreted as punishment for the father’s blasphemies, Zanussi should have been a more thoughtful student of Kieslowski’s expert exploration of liminality, of the intersections between science and faith in the Dekalog series. The depth of Kieslowski’s spiritual questionings is often expressed in moments of chance and coincidence – think of the ending of Dekalog I when the wax candle melts in the chapel, falling precisely below the Virgin’s eye, making her weep. Having said that, a sequence featuring a tightrope walker and his son is one of the highlights of the film, and echoes Kieslowski’s œuvre in a striking and profound way.

Further, it is hard to empathise with two characters who, simply put, are unbearable human beings. The youngest one is especially hard to spend time with, for he stinks of arrogance and self-absorption to the point of nausea. One has trouble understanding why the young lady is so keen to start a life with someone who clearly does not care for her. This leads me to my final point: while the film takes obviously place in the 21st century, Zanussi’s men seem to be taken straight out of the 70s, and so does the character of the girl. Indeed, Zanussi has failed to observe the shifts in social behaviours, his female character acting exactly as his 1970s’ women did – in retreat, in awe of the man of genius. The girl complains that David seldom takes interest in what she does, but the same applies to the filmmaker himself who should have given the role more nuance and depth.

To conclude, there is enough meat in Zanussi’s latest film to write an entire dissertation, and while, at times the message feels rather simple, there are plenty of moments of genuine beauty that will satisfy viewers who enjoyed his previous films. Oh, and hats off to Zanussi-regular Jan Nowicki’s brief cameo – he plays the drunkard Joachim attempts to ‘bribe’!

Perfect Number just had its international premiere at the Tallinn Black Nights Festival.

By Liván García-Duquesne - 17-11-2022

Livan Garcia-Duquesne is a UK-based French-Spanish filmmaker and writer. He holds an MPhil in Film & Screen Studies from the University of Cambridge and his academic work has been centred around t...

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