Mystics speak of a dark night of the soul, wherein faith is tested in a cataclysmic spiritual crisis. This is central to veteran writer/director Krzysztof Zanussi’s Obce Ciało (Foreign Body) We know this because it is conveniently/tediously mentioned at least twice. Sadly the frequently listless and unsubtle parable has precious little to say about religious belief in the modern world, or indeed much of anything, despite touching on a legion of different and potentially revelatory topics.
Catholic Angelo (Riccardo Leonelli) is content in his faith. With a girlfriend Kasia (Agata Buzek) who shares his spiritual devotion, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. But when Kasia enters a convent in her native Warsaw, Angelo moves with her believing he can change her mind. Whilst working for an international energy conglomerate, Angelo is tormented and harassed by his manipulative boss Kris, (Agnieszka Grochowska) whose morally bankrupt attempts to secure a lucrative pipeline deal and attendant promotion threaten his principles, his body and his soul.
Foreign Body’s frustratingly meandering narrative borders on the picaresque, veering from breezy romance to religious morality tale via corporate espionage thriller, sexual harassment potboiler and gritty prison drama. By the time of the car chase through the streets of Moscow, viewers would be forgiven their disbelief. Subplots including Kris’ promotion being imperilled by her adoptive mother’s impending trial for Post War communist war crimes contribute to a sense of the absurd. But despite the grim straight-faced tone it is hard to take any of it seriously, let alone be engaged by it.
This is because Zanussi’s crisis-of-faith yarn is so heavy handed. As his name suggests, heaven-sent Angelo embodies numerous biblical archetypes. The Christ-like torments he endures (incarceration, humiliating beatings and a rain soaked Gethsemane among them) prove hard to bear in their obviousness. Whilst we are spared an equivalent sacrifice, he is left feeling forsaken, as do we, albeit instead by the fickle movie gods. He also plays the Good Samaritan to a beggar named Adam, whose father, without a medical miracle, will surely die. The implicit suggestion, that God is dead, or at least on his way out, is bleak, overwrought and simultaneously underdeveloped, just like the rest of Foreign Body.
But there are lights hidden under the film’s bushels. The depiction of religious characters is commendably earnest, a refreshing counterpoint to the often cynical representation of believers elsewhere in Western cinema. The compassionate and surprisingly worldly nuns of Kasia’s convent reject dogmatic stereotypes, seemingly less concerned by their ward’s need to disrupt her voluntary seclusion than she is herself. The performances are admirable, with Leonelli’s handsome and charismatic Angelo holding attention even when the story wanders, and Grochowska bringing depth, nuance and humanity to what would otherwise be an irredeemable villain. Wojciech Kilar’s versatile main theme adeptly evokes romance and trauma with little variation, whilst Piotr Niemyjski’s cinematography, particularly in the convent scenes, is divine.
But the overall experience is much like the dark night the mystics spoke of; long, joyless and testing, leaving you full of questions but without much hope of, or interest in, finding the answers.