In early 12th century France, a horse thief is captured in the outskirts of a peasant village and brought to the attention of a passing monk in order to receive absolution before being hanged for his crime. Momentarily released from his binding in order to pray, the thief seizes the opportunity to flee from the village before being quickly apprehended and returned to the waiting priest, who then informs the townspeople that he cannot give absolution to someone who is not ready for death. Instead, the monk offers to take the prisoner into his counsel at the monastery and agrees to bring him back for his punishment when he is able to accept his fate. One day, the prisoner returns to the village and solemnly approaches the clearing that leads to the gallows before a seemingly anachronistic on-set mishap reveals that the opening sequence had been a film-within-a-film excerpt from a work in progress on the early life of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and his epic theological conflict with theologian Pierre Abélard (a conflict that eventually led to Abélard’s condemnation under Pope Innocent II). The nebulous, inexact context of Saint Bernard’s reassuring words to the condemned man reveals the underlying essential mystery of Krzysztof Zanussi’s pensive and articulate film, Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, as the divorced and childless Dr. Tomasz Berg (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz) – the film’s standby physician – is forced to come to terms with his own mortality after discovering that he is suffering from an advanced stage of cancer. The film presents a thoughtful contemporary allegory for a culture that is striving to reconnect with its traditional spirituality (and along with the soul searching, the inevitable self-examination that accompanies the process as people struggle to reconcile with its continued relevance in a modern, technology-driven, and increasingly alienated society) after years of systematic religious marginalization under communism. Morevoer, by chronicling Dr. Berg’s personal journey of enlightenment, closure, and transcendence, Zanussi reflects the spiritual conflict embodied by Abélard and St. Bernard’s inextricable theological conundrum: an irresolvable universal quest to find balance between reason and faith, humanity and spirituality, mortality and eternal life.
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