Monday, June 18, 2012

The Faithful River: 1987 movie, Poland (Wierna rzeka)

Continuing with my erratic movie posts for this year...
For more foreign movies, check out Caroline's World Cinema Series 2012 and Richard's monthly Foreign Film Festival round-up.

Another post about a film adaptation of a recent book I’ve read... The page for Wierna rzeka provides the summary:
Set during the insurgency of 1863, the story focuses on a tragic romance between a poor gentlewoman and a rebel noble. After a bloody battle a unit of insurgents have been wiped out and only one survived, but badly wounded. He eventually finds shelter and care from a landsteward's daughter, hiding in a burned-out manor with an old servant.

The VHS box provides a description that includes the broader story: “The adaptation of the well-known novel by Stefan Żeromski. The picture shows in impressive way the tragedy of the Polish January 1863 uprising and heroism of the young people: struggle, love and death.”

As I hope I made clear in my post on the novel, The Faithful River can be both beautiful and saccharine. Czeslaw Milosz, in my post on Stefan Żeromski, captures this duality when he praises his “stupendous richness” while at the same time pointing out the “kitsch and melodrama” in his work. The movie follows the novel closely, softening the kitsch and melodrama only a little. I don’t see how you could do away with them and stay true to the themes of the book.

Director Tadeusz Chmielewski chose to stress many of the same themes Żeromski develops, although sometimes in different ways. The novel focuses on the civilian cost of the uprising, many times through a character’s inner voice. Since that isn’t as easily (or effectively) available in a movie, Chmielewski increases the focus on the Russian army. Through this tactic we hear their comments on the Polish people—their love of freedom and tenacity in resistance. It also softens the harsh judgment on the pliant peasants who aided the Russians since the costs in not helping are explicitly shown.

I found the haunting of the mansion by Uncle Dominik’s ghost more effective in the movie. The role of the ghost emphasizes the “haunting” of the new by the old. The modern, shown especially in the uprising and the classless household, suffers when old ways of thinking surface. One example: for most of the movie Salomea treats the cook Szczepan as an equal, but things begin to fall apart when she reverts to regarding him as an inferior. While there are several changes from the novel, one alteration stood out by amplifying some of the themes. Salomea has borrowed (temporarily stolen) a sleigh to retrieve a doctor from town to help the suffering Odrowąż. The doctor, knowing Salomea has no money to pay for his visit, says he will set his own fee (insert leer here). In the novel Salomea fights off the doctor’s advances on the return trip. In the movie, she makes it clear she will sacrifice herself in return for the doctor performing surgery on Odrowąż. She does so, though, in a manner that shames the doctor, ending his lascivious advances.

In other places the ambivalence of the novel carries over to the movie, too. The Polish soldiers are just as harmful to the manor as the Russians. The same question arises—is the suffering worth it? As I noted in the post on the novel, there is a martyrdom theme that runs throughout--do Odrowąż’s or Salomea’s sacrifices or rejections improve things in any way? This is something I want to address again in the movie version of Ashes and Diamonds since this feeling is even more pronounced in it (and the novel).

The only real complaint about the movie is its length of 137 minutes—some of the early scenes, especially those emphasizing Odrowąż’s pain, could have been cut or reduced. But then I felt the same way about the book. The novel should be a good predictor for this movie. If you like the book you’ll love the movie and if you didn’t like the book you won’t care for the movie. Or if you’re like me, who enjoyed and hated the book at different times, you’ll have both feelings for the movie. A well done adaptation.

I want to put in a good word for POLart Video, the distributor of this movie and The Doll (Lalka). The quality of the print hasn’t always been the best (although some of that may have to do with the age of the VHS tapes I watched), and I’ve noted some issues with the subtitles. Even with these drawbacks I appreciate what they’ve done since they may be the only distributor for English translations of some of these movies.


Richard said...

Dwight, can I borrow your "insert leer here" line? There should be an emoticon for that or something! Unfortunately, I think you've been too honest about this movie's strengths and weaknesses for me to get excited about it. It's nice to hear about it, though, and I'll have to check out those POLart Video titles to see what they carry. By the way, is "Ferdydurke: The Movie" going to be a future film review or will we have to make do with just a book review for that one? Cheers!

Dwight said...

I just found out this past weekend that there is a Ferdydurke movie called 30 Door Key, which (of course) I promptly put in for an interlibrary loan. So there should be a review in the next month or so.

I've been picking these central European books based on whether or not I wanted to read them, but it has turned out many of them had movie adaptations. The one exceptions was Ashes and Diamonds...I saw the movie first and that compelled me to check out the book.

I may have been too harsh on The Faithful River, both novel and movie. Especially the movie since it was mostly faithful to the book. OK, maybe not. But I still intend to read more by Żeromski. I expect Ashes to be similar, but I have higher hopes for The Coming Spring. Turns out the first has a movie directed by Andrzej Wajda, so I'm sure there will be a combo there, too.

"Insert leer here" replaced "nudge nudge wink wink"...I like the first one better, so feel free to use it when appropriate.

Dwight said...

It turns out none of the libraries that own 30 Door Key will loan audiovisual material, so you've dodged that review.