Polish filmmaker Wojciech Has makes visual the prose of Anton Chekhov. If there’s one image that sticks in my mind after watching Wojciech Has’ immaculate 1983 adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short work “An Uneventful Story”, it’s the common, household ladder. Watch for it, it’s everywhere: visible through the window in the doctor’s home, sometimes being used to pick apples and sometimes not, and there (so as not to spoil things) at the end, too, like a metaphysical warning draped in the commonplace. But, what does the ladder warn against, what does it meanr Perhaps the ability to ascend, to reach higher; or, conversely, the danger of falling, the risk in “reaching out”.
To summarize the plot of this fine film is to do it an injustice. It’s much better to go in knowing that it’s, quite simply, about an aging man in the midst of a professional and existential crisis. He has a wife whom he once loved, a daughter whose fate is set to be decided, students who pester and annoy him with theses and requests, and an adoptive daughter, a performer, with whom he shares a special bond. In terms of action, it’s slow moving and, perhaps, a bit dull (so be warned!); but, in terms of everything else, it’s incredibly rich. The characterizations and acting are first-rate, as are the few sets, and, especially, the lighting. Rich blues and deep, crimson reds fall on both people and objects. The way Has moves the camera is absolutely fluid and beautiful, too: like light rays through aether. He creates mood and tone and texture through such limited means that, by the end of the film, aided by a visually phenomenal final sequence, the viewer has had imprinted on him or her a lasting impression, a reserved and unexpected contemplation.
In its themes and execution, An Uneventful Story is a kind of paradox: tied, so much, to earthly things like mud and death, it is also heavy with symbols and, in its characters, creates a type of mythology. The doctor’s is a human crisis that becomes a godly one, with ramifications far beyond the personal, as Has hints at with shots of ravens, harbingers of evil, destroying one another mercilessly. The world is cruel, and cruelty is magnified by time. Mortals die, but immortals suffer forever.
Wojciech Has is one of the most intriguing and original filmmakers to come out of post-war Poland. Although relatively unknown in the West against the likes of Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski, his films are at least equal to the works of those two directors, and should be more widely screened. An Uneventful Story isn’t a bad place to start .Rating: A