Illumination opens to a dry lecture footage from Professor Wladislaw Tatarkiewicz as he defines illumination as the moment of enlightenment in which the brain sees truth directly, explaining that it is through this state of intensified thought that a person attains wisdom. The film then cuts to a clinical shot of Franciszek (Stanislaw Latallo) as his vital statistics are measured and his cognitive skills tested by a team of research scientists. Drawn to the science of universal laws and exact and predictable phenomena, Franciszek enrolls in the Physics Department at the prestigious University of Warsaw. However, he finds his logical and analytical approach to life tested when he becomes involved with a beautiful and sophisticated woman who is unable to reciprocate his affection. Haunted and obsessed by the traumatic love affair, Franciszek seeks solace and adventure by communing with nature on a mountain climbing expedition, and meets a charming young woman named Agnieszka (Monika Dzienisiewicz-Olbrychska). Upon receiving the news of her unexpected pregnancy, Franciszek convinces her to marry him. He moves his family into a small apartment, enlists as a subject for behavioral research to earn extra income, and, overwhelmed by personal responsibility, takes a leave of absence from his studies in order to find full-time employment. Frustrated by his stalled academic progress and unable to reconcile with the unexpected death of a friend at the research hospital, Franciszek sinks into despair.
From the generation of 1970s through 1980s Polish directors inspired by the socially relevant cinema of Andrzej Wajda collectively known as the Cinema of Moral Anxiety (that included such filmmakers as Krzysztof Kieslowski, Roman Polanski, Andrzej Munk, and Agnieszka Holland), Krzysztof Zanussi creates an visually complex, incisive, and compassionate examination of the essence of knowledge and truth in Illumination. Working under an artistic doctrine that incorporates cinéma vérité into the narrative as a means of conveying realism and presenting contemporary social issues within the limited creative freedom of communist Poland, Zanussi intersperses real-life interviews, statistical data, and behavioral studies within the story of a young scientist’s personal struggle between reason and passion to reflect a universal truth on the nature of human existence: the obstetrician’s appointment that cuts to stills of embryonic development; Fanciszek’s indecision over his declared field of study that is conveyed against the impressive educational statistics of notable physicists (Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg); the jarring contrast between the clinical documentary on surgical procedures and the harrowing emotional toll that results from a failed routine operation. Illumination serves as an idiosyncratic, engaging, and insightful fusion of science and art, precision and creativity, intellect and emotion – a reflection of the innate human need for personal balance and the inextinguishable human quest for enlightenment.
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