The Constant Factor (Constans) (13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival/Masterpieces of Polish Cinema) Review
The Constant Factor is a mathematical term, and Krzysztof Zanussi's 1980 film (original title Constans) takes its title from that. Witold (Tadeusz Bradecki) believes that life can be ordered in rational terms, but time and again he is reminded that it cannot. His father died in a mountaineering accident and he plans a potentially cathartic expedition to the Himalayas. But meanwhile he is in a job which takes him overseas – such as to India, where the burning of a woman's corpse affects him with a recognition of his own privileged status. Meanwhile, his mother (Zofia Mrozowska) has terminal cancer and he bungles a bribe to a doctor to get her a bed instead of space in a hospital corridor. From time to time, Witold talks to his mathematics teacher who tells him that simple solutions do not work with complex realities.
The Constant Factor harks back to Zanussi's earlier film The Illumination: explicitly so, as both films begin with their protagonists undergoing a medical examination. Like Camouflage , The Constant Factor does not have the Makavejev-like essayistic form of The Illumination but is more conventionally shot and constructed. However, what does carry through is the interest in philosophical themes, the ironic distance in which Zanussi observes his central characters (on the hot-to-cold scale of audience identification, Zanussi's films are on the cooler side), and the precision of his direction. There's a change of cinematographer for this film, from Edward Klosiński in the earlier two to Sławomir Idziak, but Idziak's work is likewise realistic and of the school of either natural light or realistically justified light. Both cinematographers worked for Zanussi's compatriot and friend Krzysztof Kieślowski, whose films also touched on themes of fate and free will or otherwise. There's a fine music score by Wojciech Kilar. Zanussi uses symbolism unobtrusively. Not for nothing is Witold a climber, as he is often hanging in space. At the end, he's literally in mid-air, able only to watch as tragedy unfolds.
Tadeusz Bradecki acts to this day, and has collaborated with Zanussi on several occasions after this one, most recently on Zanussi's newest film Foreign Body (also showing at the Kinoteka Festival). Małgorzata Zajaczkowska, who plays Graźyna, the nurse who tends Witold's mother and ends up in a relationship with him, relocated to the USA the following year and has appeared in films there under the name Margaret Sophie Stein – you can see her in Enemies, A Love Story and Bullets Over Broadway amongst others – though has more recently worked again in her native country under her original name. Zofia Mrozowska had an acting career going back to the 1940s: she died in 1983 at the age of sixty.
The Constant Factor won the Jury Prize at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, and had a 1981 UK cinema release. (It had an A certificate then, the equivalent of today's PG, but the cremation sequence, including a close shot of the corpse on fire, may well push this up to a 12A were it submitted nowadays.) Although it has had at least one showing on Channel 4 television (which I saw) it is not currently available for homeviewing in the UK. Let's hope that that is not the case for much longer, as this is a fine film certainly deserving of your attention.
The Constant Factor is showing on 9 and 12 April at the BFI Southbank, London, as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema strand of the 13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. The screening on 9 April will be introduced by Krzysztof Zanussi. Tickets for both showings are still available at the time of writing.