Two Writers on the Screen

in 20th International Motovun Film Festival

by Tadeusz Szczepanski

The program of the 20 th Motovun Film Festival includes two films devoted to writers, their moral condition, the relationship between literature and reality, and most importantly, readers’ attitudes towards this relationship. This is a rare phenomenon in cinema, which frequently makes use of literature but rarely deals with its authors and its cognitive dimension. The two films I refer to are the Argentinian-Spanish The Distinguished Citizen (El ciudadano ilustre) by Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat and the Polish film Amok by Kasia Adamik.

These films approach their motif in completely different ways; however, they are both thrillers – Amok to a greater and The Distinguished Citizen to a lesser extent – and they both include notes of comedy. Other than this, they could not be more different.

The Distinguished Citizen is a story of a Nobel laureate writer going through a creative crisis. Receiving this most important prize for literature has made him realize that if the establishment has decided to award him, then his works have betrayed the main moral mission of a writer, which is to rebel against reality. He accepts the prize but dissociates himself from it in a provocative speech. He consistently rejects all the prestigious offers that Nobel laureates customarily receive, except for an invitation to his home town in the Argentinian provinces, from which he emigrated many years earlier in order to settle in Europe, where he found his literary fame.

The few days he spends in Argentina present him with a whole range of salutary, yet bitter, experiences. Funny manifestations of recognition, such as the unveiling of his bust or the firefighting pump (and pomp!) accompanying the award of honorary citizenship in the presence of the local beauty queen conceal dark feelings of envy as well as growing hostility caused by the critical image of the local community found in the writer’s autobiographical novels. All kinds of grudges and resentments are revealed, harbored by his old friend who married his former girlfriend even though she is still in love with the writer and closely follows his works. Complexes and parochial hypocrisy begin to surface, and aggression towards the seemingly feted and admired guest is growing, which leads to a dramatic situation where, faced with the very real threat of losing his life, he is forced to flee. However, this traumatic experience gives him long-awaited inspiration, and he writes a novel under the ironic title The Distinguished Citizen, the plot of which reflects the actual events from his home town, as shown in the film. The circle of fiction and reality – as well as film and literature – closes, leaving us with questions about the essence and function of truth in literature. And despite the fact that we receive no clear answer, we can see the tangible evidence of this truth, which is the bullet scar on the chest of the Nobel laureate, who miraculously survived.

A completely different situation between a writer and his works is seen in Amok. The protagonist is a novice writer whose first novel Amok is not selling very well. However, there is one reader, a police inspector, who studies it very carefully because he suspects that the macabre murder described in the book was really committed by its author. The writer himself sets the police on his trail, making an anonymous call, in order to draw readers’ attention to his underrated book and to achieve the fame he desires, but also because he is convinced that he committed a perfect crime and the inspector will never be able to catch him. We witness an exciting duel between the murderer and the investigator, with literature, as testimony to the truth, playing the role of compelling circumstantial evidence. The writer finally goes to prison – where he resides today, since this film is based on a true story.

Both The Distinguished Citizen and Amok add new, original chapters to the well-known history of relationships between literature and cinema.

Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2017

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