Provincial Actors (Aktorzy provincjonalni) (13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival/Masterpieces of Polish Cinema) Review
Poland, the late 1970s. Szczepan (Tomasz Zygadło), a young theatre director, comes from Warsaw to direct a regional theatre company in a production of Stanisław Wispiański's play Liberation. Krzysztof (Tadeusz Huk) is given the leading role. However, Krzysztof's ideas are countered by Szczepan, who is intent on staging the play in an avant-garde manner and giving it an ideological slant. As the rehearsals progress and opening night nears, Krzysztof's frustrations get him down, and this begins to affect his marriage to Anka (Halina Łabonarska).
Agnieszka Holland (born 1948) was by no means the first woman to direct a feature film in Poland, but as in other countries it wasn't a common occurrence in the 1970s. She began as an assistant to Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda. Provincial Actors was made for Wajda's production company.
Co-written with Witold Zatorski, Provincial Actors is mainly an ensemble piece, but as the film progresses, its emphasis is less on the interactions between the actors and their directors but on the relationship between Krzysztof and Anka. While the film is certainly sympathetic to him, it also sees him through her eyes, as an example of – to a woman – frustrating male behaviour. Key to this is a scene where Anka has a chance meeting with an old friend, who invites her round to her apartment and has become well-off by working through the system. This is at a time when a television, a black and white one, let alone a colour one, is something many people could not afford. (There's also a gay character, certainly not usual for Polish cinema then.) It's not hard to see the theatre production as a picture for Polish society in general, with compromise and inability to speak freely the order of the day. As a picture of the climate in Poland at the time, the film is something of a bleak one and towards the end quite a despairing one, though Holland ends it on a note of hope.
Provincial Actors did not receive a British cinema release. Holland's made two more films in Poland: Fever in 1980, and A Lonely Woman in 1981. The latter was completed just before martial law was imposed and was banned. Holland left Poland and has worked internationally since: notably in Germany for Europa Europa, which gained her an Oscar nomination for her screenplay, in France for Olivier Olivier, and the UK for a fine version of The Secret Garden and in Poland for In Darkness, Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film. She has also directed for US television, episodes of The Wire, The Killing, Treme and House of Cards.
Provincial Actors is showing on 15 and 16 May at the BFI Southbank, London, as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema strand of the 13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, and at the Edinburgh Filmhouse on 29 May and 11 June.