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Kieślowski's "Short Films": A Short Film about Killing by Krzysztof Kieślowski; Kieślowski's"Short Films": A Short Film about Love by Krzysztof KieślowskiReview by: Charles EidsvikFilm Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 50-55Published by: University of California Press

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Why wasn't he? Not a desire to offend-as the

fundamentalistscharge-but his unconscious share

in the sex-obsession of our age, the sex-mad Puri-

tanism he ostensibly wanted to attack. The less

heavy-handedJesus of Montreal conveys by sweet

suggestion what The Last Temptation so dumbly

overplayed: someone with a Mission still has hu-

man feelings. The bath scene perfectly fits the un-derstated,anti-materialisticone of the film; so too

does the scene where Daniel lures Remy Girard

from porno flicks. Arcand's vaguenostalgiafor the

letter of the Gospel is here supplementedby a keen

grasp of its spirit. As in Decline, he uses Jesus ofMontreal to depict tender sexuality in apocalypticbattle with diseased sexual imagination.

Most remarkably,Arcand has made a film that

brings alive the original temptation story in Mat-

thew 4-exactly what Kazantzakisand Scorseseim-

plicitly present as outdated. In Matthew the Deviltempts Christwithbread, power, andthe invitation

to betrayhis trust and take command of legions of

demons. In Scorsese's rendition, the emphasis is

mostly on sex, and the devil speaks with Barbara

Hershey's vocal chords. Arcand restoresthe focus

to broader temptations to deceit and power-thekindthat both Puritansand anti-Puritansarelikely

to miss. By being traditional he is ironically more

up to date than Scorsese, indictingthe fashion for

greed and celebrity that have made lawyers like

"Cardinal"the powerbrokersof our age. TheLastTemptationomits such evils. Jesus, without its nar-

row focus, nails them.

Both films share in a recent trend toward bet-

ter film-making on religious themes-one that

sometimes recalls the work of dead or retired

masterslike Dreyer, Bresson, and Bergman.Alain

Cavalier's Therese and Gabriel Axel's Babette's

Feast are other examples. These directors don't

provide recordsof faith, but search for something

to believe in. "We haven't yet recovered in the

Westernworldfrom the disappearancef

religion,"says Arcand. "We haven't recovered from the

shock of Hegel. We are trying, like Jesus/Daniel,

to find a kind of code of ethics, a moral doctrine,

in the middle of the endless contradictions."

On Americanscreens,the treatmentof religion

involves a different contradiction. Old Biblical

epics told of mighty miracles, and pious lives of

saints were filled with tremulous violins and halo

lighting-treatment today reservedfor benign ex-

traterrestrials.Now, films go to opposite extremes

and revel in ironic assault on religion, with hyper-

puritanical ministers (Footloose, Light of Day,Crimes of Passion, Mosquito Coast, and Shag);

hypocriticalpriests(TrueConfessions, Monsignor,Mass Appeal and The Chocolate Wars); fuddy-

duddy church ladies (Witches of Eastwick); and

fast-and-loosecaricaturesof Catholicism(Agnes ofGod, The Name of the Rose, and Hannah and Her

Sisters).Despitetelevangelscandals,it seemsstupidthat the main thing to take the place of bygone re-

ligious film-makinghas been travesty. Naivete has

simply yielded to sophomoricism.In this context, Jesus of Montreal, The Last

Temptation, and several other films are distin-

guished because they avoid two kinds of cliches-

the cliches of belief or disbelief according to the

cult of Irony. By avoiding easy affirmations or ne-

gations, these films provoke thought on existentialissues in a way that hyper-pious films do not en-

courage and Irony forbids. In its complicated,sometimes faltering, but mostly ingenious and im-

passioned blend of humor and idealism, Jesus of

Montreal is, at times, the best of the lot.


Kie lowski's "ShortFilms"

A ShortFilmAboutKillingScriptand directionby KrzysztofKie'lowski.


niew Preisner. Editor:Eva Smal.

A ShortFilmAboutLoveScriptand directionby KrzysztofKie'lowski.

Photography:Witold Adamek. Music:Zbig-

niew Preisner. Editor:Eva Smal.

When Krzysztof Kie'lowski's A Short

Film about Killing was named the recipientof the

first European Film Prize, the "Felix," at the end

of 1988, few filmgoers were familiar with Kies-

lowski's work. In a competitionthat includedWim

Wenders's Wingsof Desire and Louis Malle's Au

revoir les enfants, the judges' choice of Kies-

lowski's strangeand uncompromisingfilm seemed

to many European criticsto be a deliberateprovo-


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cation: both a European declaration of indepen-dence from the entertainmentvalues of Hollywoodand from the usual film festival adulation of big-name directors. Known primarily as a documen-

tarist, Kie'lowski had previously made importantbut minor features-in particular, Camera Buff(1975) and No End (1984)-and had won festival

prizes for several other films, but was overshad-owed by Poles such as Wajda, Zanussi, and Hol-land. Further, Kie'lowski did not fit the usual

"importantdirector"mold: a one-time film profes-sor whose recent work had been financedprimarilyby Polish television, his work is deliberatelymod-est. (A Short Film about Killing andA Short Filmabout Love cost a fraction of eventhe absurdly owcosts of most Polish features and both are, indeed,short by theatricalstandards,at 85 and 90 minutes

respectively-hence theirtitles.) The two films were

produced as theatricalby-productsof a Decalog oncontemporary issues suggested by the Ten Com-mandments (and in which shorter, one-hour ver-sions of the two "short films" also reside). But ashis "short films" moved into European distribu-

tion, criticalattention to Kie'lowski did not abate.

Though his work remained outside of any main-stream aesthetic, Kie'lowski was invited to festivalafter festival, either as a participantor as a judge.Many European intellectuals now regard him as

perhapsthe most important,and certainlythe most

disturbing voice in Polish cinema. I will suggestwhy that is so and propose some terms in whichKie'lowski's work might be understood.

What is specialabout Kie'lowski's work? First,his starting point: a near-total despair about the

everyday realities of housing-project Poland. Forcritics such as Munich's Peter Buchka,* Kies-lowski's films are brilliant autopsies of a societywhere nothing works, not even everyday humanconnections between people; it is a land so mori-bund that (as Kie'lowski has mumbled in inter-

views) no socialmovement,


noworkof art, can have much effect. Partly it is that the

communal aspectof culture has brokendown: livesare atomistic, with social structureskeepingpeopleapart rather than bringing them together. Andpartly the problem is ontological: Kieglowski sees

the lives of individuals as ruled largely by chanceratherthan by fate or even probability. Like almost

everyonein Poland's cities, Kieglowski'scharacterslive in drab concrete silos, virtually caged, cut offfrom normal contact: their loneliness is nearly to-tal, and theirattempts to escape loneliness, whetherby murderor love, form the spines of Kie'lowski'sstories. These charactersfight not only the culturethey live in but ever-present ontingency: heirhopesand plans have little more predictive value than along-range weather forecast. As in his No End, inwhich he told three stories, each dependent onwhethera charactersteppedon a trainor not, Kies-lowski has continued to be fascinated by the cava-lier twists seeminglyinconsequentialevents give toa life. His charactershave little control over theirlives and little chance of success even in small mat-

ters. Kieflowski's outlook may well be the gloom-

iest of any major director in Europe.But what makes his work important is that he

has invented a style that makes near-hopelessnessexciting on a moment-by-moment-basis. Bringingto his fiction films the kind of tension found innature documentaries depicting the moment-by-moment strugglesof small animalsor insectsto sur-vive, Kie'lowski's films look and feel like no otherfilm-maker's. He refuses the formulas of both theEastern European art cinema and of Hollywood.His films are rhythmicallyrather ike IngmarBerg-

man's ascetic explorations in the period from TheSilence through The Passion of Anna, but unlike

Bergman's,they have little interest n reflexivity;hisfilms are aboutpeople,not aboutmovies.

Perhaps it is most accurate to describe Kies-lowski's style as an antithesis to those classicalfiction-film rhetoricsin which each shot's job is to

predictthe next and in whichthe viewer is reassured

by genericconventions that how the story is boundto end is predetermined. There is no clear way of

predicting how a Kie'lowski film (or even a Kies-

lowski scene or shot) will end; his camera follows,ratherthan leads, the actions of his often impulsivecharacters. In part Kieflowski's style derives fromthe documentary practice, born from necessity, of

following ratherthan leading each "subject." ButKieflowski's shot structures and editing are notthose of documentary, in which the camerapersonmust stand back enough not to affect the subject,must frame loosely enough and with enough depthof field so that unexpected movement can be co-


*PeterBuchka, "WeitereNachrichtaus einem kaputtenLand:Krzysztof Kie'lowskis 'Kurzer Film ueber die Liebe", Sud-deutsche Zeitung, 1 Juni, 1989.

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A Short FilmAboutKilling

vered,andmustuse natural ight. Rather,he hastaken hoseelements f documentaryhatsignal n-

volvementwithunpredictable,live"peopleratherthanwithactorswhosemovements reblockedoutin advance,andcombined heseelementswitha re-

thoughtversionof fiction film technique.A ShortFilm about Killinglooks the more rad-

icalof thetwofilms.Certainlyt is the morerelent-

lesslypessimistic. ts structures anintercutting fthreestories:of a maliciousyoungmanwhobru-

tallymurdersa cabby;of the cabby;and of a lawstudent acingexams,whosefirstcasewill beto de-fendthat killer.Theopening mageannounces he

setting:a deadratfloatsin a gutter n a greycon-cretecityunder he dimyellow-brownightso com-mon in an EasternEuropefueledby high-sulfurcoal. ThenKie'lowski luntly nnounces istheme:uselessmalice-a hangedcatdangles n a window.This theme will be playedout several imes:by a

cabby,bya maliciouskiller,bythestate.Thepres-ence of senselessmaliceties the film together.

The story is low-mimeticand low-keyed.A

cabbygets up in the morning,and beginsto goabout hisday.A lawstudentgoesto takehis final

exam.And the "main"character, youngdrifter,watchesa beating n an alley,thengoesabouthis

day. Hegoesto a movietheaterbutis told thefilmis boring.Hebringsa snapshot o a photoshopto

getit enlarged, ndaskswherehe cangeta cab.Hewalks o anoverpass,andthere,pushesa stoneoffa ledge.There s thesoundof a car on theroadbe-low crashing,but he does not stopto watch.Ma-licious butwithno goal forthatmalice,hegoestoa squarewherecabspickup fares.Frightenedby

thepresenceof cops, he goes to a cafe. There, heflirts throughthe windowwith a coupleof littlekids, wrapsa cord aroundone hand, andleaves.He getsa cab, hasthe drivergo into the country-side, strangles he driverwith the cord, dragsthebodyto a river, inds thedriver tillalive, smasheshis head with a rock, and leaves. Followingthissenseless and brutal murder,the drifter drivesaround, astingonenightbeforeheis caught.Af-ter that he has a trial, awaitsexecution,and ishanged.The drifter'storyprovideshespineof thenarrative.

Thesecondviewpoints the victim's.Thecabbywasheshis cab. A young couplewant a ride;hetakes off withoutthem. He sees other potentialcustomers:a womanwithdogs;a homosexual,adrunk.Hedodges hem.Heedgilyavoidscustom-ershe doesnot want. Buthe is not simplymean:

whenhe seesa straydog, hegives hedoghissand-wich.Eventually epicksuptheyoungman.Oncethe young man beginsto garrothim, the cabbystruggles,as if forever,beforehe dies.

The thirdviewpoint,thatof the law student,bringsa humaneperspectiveo thestory.Hetakeshis exam.The examis one long confessionof hisproblemwiththelaw:the lawis clearbutcircum-stancesarenot; rulesand realityconflict. Askedwhy he wants to be a lawyer,he repliesthat hewants o meetpeoplehe otherwisewouldneverget

to know.He passeshisexam,and thenheandhisgirlfriendgo to a nearbycafe, wherethey talkaboutmarriage.Later, heyoung awyer'sirstcaseis to defend hekiller.He loses.He visitsthekillerin deathrow. Whatbothers helawyermostis thathe rememberseeing he driftern thecafe;thatanydiversionat that point could have changedtheevents hat followed.Thekilleraskshimto givethephotohehadenlarged, photoof a deadsister, ohismother,andexplains hat, but for an accidentin whichthe sisterwas killed,afterwhichhe was

kicked out of his family, his life could have beendifferent. The lawyer observes the hanging, the

carryingout of the state's malicious revenge, andleaves to grieve alone.

Of the three main characters,only the law stu-

dent/lawyer would be in a movie by anyone butKieglowski.The cabby is the jerk that city cabbiesso often seem to be. He becomes trulysympatheticonly when he struggles o breatheandpleads for hislife. But that is part of Kieglowski'spoint: anyone


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finallyat thepointof dying s someoneweidentifywith,and cannot tand o seedie.Similarlywith hemurderer.As we watch him causea caraccident,and even moreaswewatchhimfirststrangle,hen

bludgeonhecabby'shead,heisutterlydespicable:anyonein the audiencewould vote for the death

penaltyafterwatchinghesescenes.But he becomes

oddly sympathetic ittingin a cell, doomed, andthenfully sympatheticwhen,struggling gainst he

guards,he is manhandled, hoved nto thenoose,anddies,hissphinctermuscle ettinggo of the con-tents of hisgutsdown hispants egas he dies.Likethe lawyer,we mayfeel no sympathy or whathehasdone,but wantno partof the execution.That

societydecreed he death s no matter:murder anbe nothing but malicious. What the executionmakesof the executionerss beyondtolerance.

To get at the psychologicalambience of his

film, Kieflowskiresortsto old tools: vignetting,bled-outcolor,highcontrast.He films the killer's

story expressionistically: ameramanSlamomirIdziak iltered heedgesof the framewitha yellow-brownnetor gel. Thoughthe drifter's ace, espe-ciallyin close-up, ooks relativelynormal thoughsomewhatwashed-out) he restof the image goesyellow-brown: he young man lives in a mentalchemicalmog.Thecabby's tory s less filteredbut

grayed-out,with color-drained ettings.The law-

yer'sstoryis more"human"in its tones;though

Kieflowskidesaturates olor heretoo, faces andtextures-a wooden desk, a landscape-seem al-most normal.Yet overall the film is a documentabout the nearlyunbearable.

In contrast, A Short Film about Love is byturnscomic and colorfullyerotic;though nearlyequallypessimisticabout the settingof contem-

poraryPoland,it is prettiero watch. The charac-ters seemaslonelyas thoseinKilling,butbasicallyharmless.The protagonist,Tomek,was raised n

an orphanage;he worksn

a post officeand

liveswithhis bestfriend'smother.From he friend whois nowin Syria)Tomekacquired otonlythe roombutthehobbyof spyingon Magda,a thirtyishar-tist with an active love life, who lives across the

courtyard.The filmbeginswith Tomekstealinga

high-powered elescopeso he can watch Magdamore closely. Watching,he falls in love, not asadults endto, but like a schoolboycrush-turned

on, jealous,puerile,prankish,andfrustrated.To

. ...


A ShortFilm About Killing

see hermoreoften, he inventsrusesto get her to

cometo hispostofficewindow,andtakesa second

job deliveringmilk to her apartmentbuilding.Eventuallyhe confesseshe hasbeenwatchingher.

Furious,she has a boyfriendbeatTomekup. But

when she sees his bruisedface, she relentsand

agrees o a date.Theyhave tea. Tomekconfesses

he alsohasstolensomeof hermail.Outraged, he

getshimto come o herplace.There,unableo con-

trolhimself,heejaculates s soonas shehasputhis

handon her. Shelaughsat himandtellshimthat

is love: a selfishurgethat makesa mess. Tomek


landlady indshim andgetsanambulance.But themomentTomek eaves,Magda, ornby guilt,tries

to contactTomekto gethim to return.Shebeginsto pursuehim: she goes to the post office; she

makesinquiriesof his landlady.Findingwhathe

has done, she becomesobsessedwith gettingin

touch with him. In A Short Film about Love eroti-

cism is just one way in whichthe need to touch

otherpeopleis expressed,but it is an inseparable

partnotonlyof Tomek'sattractiono Magda andlater,perhaps, f herfascinationwithhim)but also

of the oldlandlady's

attraction o Tomek. Madeinto spiritualshut-insby the high-risecompart-ments n whichtheylive andthe bureaucraciesn

whichtheywork,theirattemptsat lovemust nec-

essarilybe neurotic.But any attemptat love in

Kieflowski'sworld s acceptable.Unlike ilms(suchas Peeping Tom or Rear Window)in which there

is somethingperverseabout voyeurism, n Kies-

lowski'sworld heurge o watch s at leasta resultof the desire o shareanother's ife, anda poten-


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tial preliminaryo makingclosercontact.Kieflowskiswitchedcameramenon A Short

FilmaboutLove, hereworkingwithWitold Ada-mek.Adamek ets colorsaturate; boveall, hefills

thefilm with bravura hotcombinations,n which

"fiction" setupsareplayedagainstdocumentary

techniquesn order o createnvolvement.Adamek

deos not careaboutshadowdetail:his key lightsarehard,hittingin pools and often leavinga lot

of the screendark.Rather hanmodelnosesand

cheekbonesprettilywith soft fill lighting,Adamek

often uses harshspotlightsfrom above and the

side, lettingactorsmoveinto andout of pools of

light.How we seethecharactershusvariesfrom

moment to moment:one instant, for example,

Magda ooks astonishinglypretty; he next, com-

pletelyordinary.As a result,ourperceptions ven

of a straightforwardcenebecomecomplicated: e

are not allowedthe constancyeffect, the stabiliz-ing of our perceptionswhich prolongedcontact

with a person in everyday ife (or conventional

movielighting)normallyprovides.Adamek's amera taysglued o thecharacters,

with continual orrection f theframingastheac-

torsmove.The actorsseemto movefreely, mpul-

sively, givingthe impressionof not havingbeen

blockedfor easeof filming.(Therealso seemsto

be little or no "cheating"of their positions or

movementso getthem ntoframesanddollyshots

neatly.)In someshotsthecameraseemsshouldermountedbutnotshaky);he camera tayswiththe

characters s if it werea character, ighting o be

in therightplace o see,butwithout heaxle-greasesmoothnessand technicalsavoirfaire of main-


hances heeffectsof hisedgystruggleo stayontopof the actionby usingrelativelyong lenses,tight

compositions,andshallowdepthsof field. Often,

as in documentaries,bjectsgetinthewayof what

we wantto see, andAdamekmustmove around

them.Theobjects asindocumentary)o notseem

planted oreffectbutjustpartof theclutter f real-

ity. The cameracontinuallyreframes,refocuses,

andthencutsto a new,bettervantagepoint.As in

a documentary,Adamek oregroundshestrugglewith real locations, with the impulsiveness hat

makesrealpeopleso hardto document,withthe

contingencieshatgivedocumentary-likeresenceto a moment.

Butthecameraworkstillechoesandalludes o

the standardonventions f fiction ilm. In interiorscenes suchas onein whichTomekandMagda itdownfortea)KieflowskiandAdamekshoot from

something loseto the usualpositions.But instead

of the usualprocedures or handling hese posi-tions, Kieflowskiand Adamek nventtheirown.

Conventionalcamerapositions save set-up and

lighting imeby shootingsuch a scenefrombegin-ning to end fromtwo positions; n the edit, seg-ments from each position ping-pongback and

forth. But A ShortFilm about Love rarelyrepeats

camera etupsprecisely; s if theywereshootinga

documentaryn sequence,Kieflowski ndAdamek

keepshifting,huntingfor a fresh frameandper-

spectivefor each moment.Sometimesshots and

cuttingrhythms reunpredictable.orexample,n

the scenein whichMagdarunsfromthe post of-

fice, frustratedandhumiliatedby anotherprank

summons o getmail,Tomekfollows,andcallsaf-terher, confessingt is his fault.The camera weepswith Tomek, stoppingonly after he does. Kies-

lowskicomesin closefor Magda'sangryreaction

asshetellsTomek o disappear, oesina wideshot

withTomekashetellsherhesawhercry astnight,theninto a seriesof variedshotsas shereactsand

heconfesseshe haswatchedherandthathe loves

her.Butnoneof thesecamerapositionsorthecuts

between hemgivesthesense hatthescenewasre-

hearsed ndrepeatedor eachcameraposition; he

impressions of a

spontaneous vent, caughtby a

chanceperception.Thefilm'smostconventional isualelement s

its useof saturated eds.Tomekcovershis scopewith redcloth, Magda'sbedspread ndtelephonearered,andshehasredstick-onson herdoor;her

weavingalsohasredmotifs.Red s Magda's olor,

a gestureof rebellionagainstthe greynessof the

world n whichshelives.Unliketheothercharac-

ters,herresponseo otherpeople, o objects, o life

is openly tactile and, despiteher bitternessand


touching other people, feels especiallyseductivein

the context of Kieflowski's gray Poland.

In the film's final scene, Magda sees a light in

Tomek's room. She runs to the apartment, and

asks to see Tomek. He is asleep. Magda reachesto

touch his bandaged wrists. The landlady stops her,

tryingto protect him. Magda then goes to the tele-

scope, looks at her apartment, and imagines her-

self the night she cried, but now with Tomek with


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A ShortFilmAboutLove

her as a friend to comfort her. When touch is im-

possible, the voyeuristic imagination takes over.

But that at least gives the hope that there might betouch again, and with touch, a future.

Like Bergman'swork in the 1960s,Kie'lowski's

is about loneliness and the search for human con-

tact, for touch. Unlike Bergman'scharacters,how-

ever, Kie'lowski's struggleagainstmore than inner

angst: their society gives them little chance that

contingencywill work for ratherthan againstthem.

Peter Buchka may well be right that Kie'lowski's

films arean autopsyof Poland. But they arehardlya writing off of Polish people. One by one Kies-

lowski's characters struggle for contact. They arenot all malicious killers. A young lawyer befriends

a doomed man and weeps at his death. A landladytreats a young man as if he were her own son. A

woman forgives a young man for spying on her.

Each of these tries to reach out, to find somethingdecent to do. And in this reaching out Kie'lowski

finds some small hope for, if not Poland, at least

some of its people.As Kie'lowski's producer remarked to Kies-

lowski when he received the first European film


longas there are directors like


land is not yet lost." That may or may not be true.

But Kieglowskihas found a form to make the strug-

gle for spiritual survival in such a land exciting.That struggle can be filmed by treating stories asif they were real, by treating characters as if theywere people, by treating film as if it were always a

document. In Kieglowski's world most characters

do not have much chance of success. But their

struggle! Kie'lowski has shown us an exciting way

to film struggle. And in this showing, perhaps he

has opened a new path for film-makerswho do not

want to forget their respect for reality when mak-

ingfiction ilms. CHARLES EIDSVIK

Freedom s Paradise

Writtenand directedby SergeiBodrov.

Held in Moscow in May of 1986, the

Fifth Congressof the Film-makers'Association of

the USSR* markedthe beginning of a massive at-

tempt to democratize and decentralize the mono-

lithic Soviet film industry.Among the first concrete

measures to be taken was the "de-shelving" of

films which had been previouslyjudged unaccept-

able and the rehabilitation of the generation of"damned film-makers" who had directed them.

Some of these films, such as AlexanderAskoldov's

The Commissar(Komisar, 1967-87) and KiraMu-

ratova'sBriefEncountersKorotkie strechi, 967-

87) had been locked away into vaults for as much

as 20 years; others were the work of somewhat

younger film-makers such as Alexander Sokurov

(HeartlessGrief [Skorbnoebeschustvie],1983-86,TheLonelyVoiceof a Man[Odinokij oloschelo-

veka], 1978-87), and the Georgians Irakli Kviri-

kadze (The Swimmer [Ploveta], 1981-87) andTengiz Babluani (The Migration of Swallows

[Poroliot vorobev], 1979-87) whose careers had

likewise been preventedfrom developing normally

during the "years of stagnation" under Brezhnev.

This first wave of "new" Soviet films which had

until recently been prohibited from projectionwould rapidly become favorites on the interna-

tional festival circuit, winning for example the

Golden Bear, top prizeof the 1987Berlin Film Fes-

tival for Gleb Panfilov's Tema (1979-87), the Sil-

ver Bear of the 1988Berlin Festival for Askoldov's

TheCommissar, the SpecialJuryPrize of the 1987

Cannes Festival for Tengiz Abuladze'sRepentance

(Pokajanie, 1984-87), etc., and would occasion a

major reevaluation of the modern Soviet cinema.

One of the most recent works to emerge from

*That is, the Soyuz sovietskij kinematografistov,translatedal-

ternately as "Soviet filmmakers' association," "Union of

Soviet Filmmakers."


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