Andrzej Wajda’s “Walesa: Man of Hope” — Poland’s 2014 Oscar entry for best foreign film, and this year’s Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival opener — probes the private as well as public life of an unconventional hero whose transformation from humble shipyard worker to charismatic leader produced the most successful (and amazingly peaceful) revolution of the late 20th century.
How, exactly, did a stubborn, cocky family man named Lech Walesa challenge the Communist system and change the world? Director Wajda’s answers that question in a fast-paced, psycho-political portrait that keeps you engaged, even as it provides a crucial history lesson, especially for under-30 audiences who don’t remember Poland’s triumphant role in wresting its own — and inspiring other East Europeans’ — independence from the Soviet Union.
Rating: PG-13 in nature for subtitles.
Robert Wieckiewicz is superb in the mustachioed title role, sparring with his obnoxiously smug interviewer Oriana Fallaci (Maria Rosaria). Both of them — and everybody else in 1980s Poland — are chain-smokers. Inflation is rampant, the Polish economy is in shambles. The great Gdansk (Danzig) shipyards are in turmoil and its workers are going on strike — strictly against Communist laws.
Walesa, a minor member of the strike committee, is no rabble-rouser. He tries to calm people down rather than stir them up and is a forgiving, not vengeful, person in general. Meanwhile, his wife Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska) is going into delivery with their sixth child.
Fired and arrested for his activities, Walesa will spend a lot of time in jail — then and later. (He was pushing a pram with his baby on one such arrest, and a female jail guard kindly breast-fed the infant for a few days.) In typically droll, philosophical fashion, Lech observes that “prison is a good place for reflection.” It’s there that a great idea comes to him:
“Society’s only defense against injustice is SOLIDARITY!”
A fine concept in general. And a fine name for a union.
The script nicely highlights Walesa’s wry humor — switching soup bowls, for instance, with another prisoner who may be a Communist plant: “If you’re poisoned, it’ll be a smaller loss for Poland,” he says.
Pope John Paul II shows up in 1979. Martial law is declared in 1981. Walesa’s prestige (and role) as Poland’s labor leader rise enormously. My favorite dialogue exchange:
“But Lech, what about the intellectuals?” Fallaci asks.
“They talk and talk for hours, and their conclusions are the same ones I reach in five seconds,” he replies. “God save us from the intellectuals and the peasants!”
Sweet, long-suffering Danuta adores him but is left to deal with the kids and no money. Ms. Grochowska plays her beautifully, much like Wendy Hiller as Thomas More’s wife in “A Man for All Seasons”: “You want to take on the government AND the military?” she asks, in near despair. “I’m not visiting you in prison, or in the cemetery.”
His reply, much like Thomas More’s: “I didn’t want to do this, but I have to.”
Wajda, one of Poland’s greatest filmmakers, is beloved for “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958) and his Oscar-nominated “Promised Land (1975),” Man of Iron” (1981) and “Katyn” (2007). His Walesa film at hand is too hagiographic, but also hugely important and relevant, in a new worldwide wave of national unrest.
Who — and where — is Ukraine’s Lech Walesa?
"Walesa: Man of Hope" opens the CMU International Film Festival at 7:15 p.m. March 20 at Regent Square Theater. It repeats Sunday, 4:30 p.m., McConomy Auditorium, CMU University Center, 5000 Forbes Ave. Co-sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Slavic Languages, LOT Polish Airlines, the Polish Consulate in New York and Polish Falcons of America. A banquet honoring former Polish first lady Danuta Walesa, author of a controversial recent book about her experiences during the rise of Solidarity, takes place Friday night at the University Club in Oakland. Proceeds go to Pitt’s Endowed Fund for Polish Studies. For ticket info, contact Pitt Slavic Department, 412-624-5906.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.