Life As a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease (2000)

Unfortunately only got to see one other of Krzysztof Zanussi’s films shown in the Mubi retrospective, Illuminations. It’s my understanding that Zanussi is a highly intellectual filmmaker, having abandoned an academic life in physics and philosophy to pursue filmmaking. His films tackle big philosophical questions that are normally addressed in extremes by either science or religion, with a sprinkle of that classic sardonic Polish wisdom. Life As A Fatal STD opens with a film within a film in which a horse robber is being sentenced to hang. Enter a medieval mystic who insists on taking the thief away so that he can make spiritual reparations before his death. The thief and the mystic ride away and then return some ambiguous amount of time late. Naturally the thief falls to the ground ready to surrender himself to his inevitable death because he has made his peace with God. The process of reconciliation is comically absent, perhaps also a testament to the personal and complicated nature of such a feat. Cut scene and we step back into the actual movie following Tomasz Berg (played by Polish acting legend Zbigniew Zapasiewicz), an atheist doctor diagnosed with cancer. The rest of the film essentially fills in the space between the the beginning and the end of the fictional thief’s story, but adjusts Tomasz spiritual reckoning in accordance with his nature, which is highly secular and ultimately corrupted. We find out throughout the film he is engaged in medical malpractice, often providing drug addicts and mentally unstable individuals with morphine. He also seems to have a rotten history with his ex-wife. All the same he seems to be a thoughtful (if not with a bit of that dirty uncle demeanor) father figure to a young medical student and his girlfriend, the only two people who seem to be affected by his death. Although out of a sort of last-ditch desperation he finds comforts in religious practices and symbols, it’s obvious this is because he lacks a language or system that offers similar life or after-life affirming promises. Ultimately, he is searching for a way to die at peace with himself, with dignity, and on his own terms. However genuine these sentiments, I wasn’t particularly struck by this film and after seeing some of the experimental editing, cinematography, and stylistic decisions in Illuminations (1973a very early Zanussi film), I was disappointed to see a film in which technical experimentation was notably absent. I guess I really screwed up by missing The Constant Factor (1980). Nevertheless and in spite of my small sample-size, I suspect Zanussi is no equal counterpart to his contemporary and countryman, Krzysztof Kieślowski.

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