DVD Review: Escape from Liberty Cinema

Polish director Wojciech Marczewski was no stranger to his country's censors - giving up film direction altogether after 1981's Shivers due to the return of martial law and film censorship. He exploited his experiences to the full in his fabulous absurdist comedy, Escape from the 'Liberty' Cinema. Those familiar with Woody Allen's 1985 comedy The Purple Rose of Cairo will notice similarities. Marczeweski based his narrative on Allen's and then politicised it, crafting an exceptional satire set just prior to the fall of the communist regime that combines surreal humour and cinematic allusions to champion freedom, artistic or otherwise.

The wonderful Janusz Gajos stars as an ex-poet and theatre critic who has wound up a irascible district censor, Rabkiewicz, who suffers from headaches, a weak heart, and ultimately a deep lack of fulfilment. His skin is clammy and Gajos plays him with a frown only an instant from from his brown, often kept at bay merely with disdain. He's a tragic figure, failed and embittered - destined to be plagued by his past failings and the repercussions of his professional conduct. He sees his own discontent reflected on living celluloid when he's called to his local picture house, the eponymous Liberty, to witness the film Daybreak. One character/actor has rebelled, spewing whatever comes to mind, complaining about the shoddy screenplay and gaffs in the casting. "I read Sophocles" laments Tadeusz (Wladyslaw Kowalski), who is supposed to be playing the Professor up on screen. It seems a distant relation to Rabkiewicz own claim in the opening scene: "Censoring is an art."

The artistic merit of contemporary Polish cinema comes under fire itself, later in the piece, in a scene that sees a film critic (Michal Bajor) dismissing even this improvised version of Daybreak as cliched and lacking - the original scripted version was certainly banal TV movie melodrama. Amongst the many things that Marczewski was attempting to achieve with this film was a rallying call to use the newfound freedom - after the end of Communism (and thus censorship) in Poland in 1989. Somewhat ironically, much of the Tor Film Unit believed Escape from the 'Liberty' Cinema to be too frivolous to stand alongside other substantial recent output including Kieslowski's Dekalog and Krzyzstof Zanussi's Inventory.

Despite it's appearance as a cleverly reflective but throwaway comedy, the film is far more nuanced and intellectual than many surmised. Allusions to high art and literature are rife - including the leading actress in the film, MaƂgorzata (Teresa Marczewska), being a reference to the heroine of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. This was a film intended for consumption by an educated and (cine)literate audience, aware of the wider political ramifications. It is not just Rabkiewicz' journey from self-loathing to personal emancipation but an examination of the very essence of freedom and censorship, the toll they take on individuals and society, and the permeable nature of the boundary between art and reality, even when that boundary is a cinema screen.

The protagonist's final gesture is as rousing and liberating as any such stance should be, but never allows him to shirk responsibility for his own prior offences, making even the final moments of Escape from the 'Liberty' Cinema a complex discourse that may begin as a quirky and imaginative comedy, but it morphs seamlessly into a meaningful political satire and climaxes as a timeless and disarmingly moving condemnation of censorship. Often overlooked when considering the best of Polish cinema, it is arguably one of the all-time greats and is now available from the tireless Second Run DVD.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson


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