I had a near impossible time deciding which still was worthy of representing this film, because one frame fails utterly to justify its irresistible enormity. The Promised Land, a movie by venerable Polish artist Andrzej Wajda, will perhaps prove to be my last great discovery of 2018. I have both hunted and diverted it for over three years and finally settling down with it gifted me with a beautiful companion to my memory of seeing Theo Angelopoulos' The Travelling Players for the first time: Exhausted in the early hours of the morning and yet so utterly transfixed I could only do as much as blink. Wajda's film had me, hexed, and even now I am yet to be free from its spell.
Tracing the personal and professional affairs of three businessmen banding together to open their own factory, Wajda combs through marathon months and years of ceaseless commerical buzz to find his anti-sedate sprawl of a narrative. Of course, even at speed, three hours of blood sweat and savage capitalism could not survive without its delicious wit, both present and ironic in endless formes and balanced on an acid tongue that fights off the feverish immediacy of its jagged violence: Sparse but just as haunting as the factory foremen who continue to command even stained with the blood of their expendable staff- Wajda’s attentive and delicate direction pricking at scratched-out shadows of their buried empathy with a graceful subtlety that keeps in step with the breathless pace of the picture effortlessly.
The Promised Land moves like few films this dense can, or perhaps even should. It casts aside the sleeping giant of epic film pacing to live a raw, relentless surge of space: Dancing from scene to scene replete with ambient bridges of dilapidated slums and the sickly exuberance of the rich, sniping at eachother with the instinctive malice of utter loneliness. Wajda’s world cannot slow down, caught in a giddy maelstrom of Capitalist utopia wherein the rich only get richer and the poor can always be replaced. It is in this acute speed that Wajda devilishly cultivates a fascinating thorn spearing our de-facto lead, Karol, planted with the aforementioned gory loss of a minor worker and gently provoked with each expensive corpse that seems to appear without reason for seconds at a time. But this is merely one man’s fixation, the other characters’ fears further detailed with novelistic precision and patience. As with all his finer films, Wajda so perfectly convinces me of world’s reality because he does not, on the silver dish with which his nobles are served, produce filmic introductions or forcible moments of rest. The Promised Land runs free, every shot dovetailing into the next with the silent assurance of absolute comfort. It is a seminal study for film-makers precisely because you sit and stand and stride and lust and grieve with these people. Zero artifice. Total confidence. The perfect world. It’s the kind of film I was elated to be living in.
Wajda’s narrative and characters, flying off the screen with the gothic authenticity of a documentary fable, are enlivened totally by fullblooded photography and production design: Coyly wearing its delirious expense as if to procure one final comment on its internal economy. Businessmen stride through endless reams of tireless machines, illuminated in their own image by the god-rays sweeping across their factory floors, light shapeshifting with modal intricacy to underpin and expose the dreams and quiet little disasters of the film’s petulant trio with vicious accuracy. Wajda’s direction, in league with expressive cinematography, weave a tapestry of time that sees seemingly thousands of extras and highly decorated cityscapes inhabit an age of steam, greed and blood- allowing it to speak and only venturing into the stylistic to underline obscenities and deftly dart our eyes under the surface with discerning nuance of composition, tone and, again, time. The Promised Land is itself stuck in an imperceptible cage, rushing to forget every waking moment and yet somehow painfully aware of every second all at once in a way that only clicks into place in its revelatory penultimate shot: One that left me grinning speechlessley.
Rare moments of emotional vulnerability surge with a volcanic current: An instant and incandescent half-life that, fatally, seem only to further bury the stone-faced businessmen in their own private traps. I am so disarmed by the foreboding pace of The Promised Land that the chilling courage of its fleeting honesty continues to shock me. In a profound gesture of storytelling, Wajda silently slips these moments absolute command of the narrative- that they may derail its pace and stop the vehicle dead in its tracks to finally set themselves free. By the end Wajda is knitting miniature epiphanies into mere minutes of screentime, his characters wandering an elegaic realm of their own knotted mortalies and moralities. It takes courage to present a film like this, but absolute assurance to so meticulously arrange and then simply let fly its characters and world- free reign shaped by fate, destiny and a knowledge of their cinematic confinement that bleeds through so very rarely- but strikes with transcendental power every time. Wajda's masterpiece (?) is a work so gargantuan in its scale and striking intimacy that I am at a loss to describe any effect, on me or otherwise, except to say I would rewatch the film endlessley if only to live it again.
There is little else. In this day and age, what can we expect of our own films than to be an ever-shifting chimerical kaleidoscope of all our cinematic loves, and hates? Making movies is a mosaic of experience and, surely, the thrilling vitality of The Promised Land will inspire me to no end.