While his work is generally unfamiliar to North American filmgoers, Andrzej Wajda is Poland’s greatest living director, one of the acknowledged international giants of the industry. His cinematic genius aside, Wajda has, since the mid-’50s, shown the same moral courage in his work as the striking workers of Gdansk. And while The Conductor is a much less sweeping film than those of his renowned war-and-aftermath trilogy— Generation, Canal and Ashes and Diamonds— it too deals in universal human truth: idealism and honesty of purpose are, ultimately, their own rich reward.
The Conductor, although highly complex in characterization, advances a deceptively simple plot. Jan Lasocki (Sir John Gielgud) returns to his small Polish home town after 50 years abroad, having reached the pinnacle of his profession. One reason for the return is a chance meeting in New York with Marta (Krystyna Janda), daughter of the woman he once cherished and, for him, her virtual reincarnation. Marta, a violinist in the local orchestra, is married to Adam (Andrzej Seweryn), its conductor, a man of minor talent and overweening ambitions: his orchestra is mediocre—or it seems to be, until the great Lasocki takes up the baton.
Adam is soon exposed for the straw man that he is. He doesn’t love music, Marta tells him, it’s only a means to an end: a shot at the big time. Finally, Adam’s last vestige of integrity is tested by a group of local bureaucrats who would turn the Lasocki concert into a great cultural propaganda coup. From this evolves a conclusion that is simultaneously tragic and triumphant.
Gielgud is generally considered to be the finest actor in the English-speaking world, and he does nothing here to disprove that contention. But, amazingly, Janda and Seweryn are more than able to hold their own with him. Like Wajda, like all the Polish nation, they have much to teach us. J.G.
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