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The Exile 

Director Agnieszka Holland

Wednesday, Dec 22 1999
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”I was Catholic for a while,“ says filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. ”I chose it when I was a teenager, and was very passionate, even fanatical. But I had problems with particular priests and some of the ideology, because I am half Jewish, and a skeptic. I still am. This critical part of myself is so strong, it’s difficult to fight.“ Holland‘s latest film confronts such dividedness directly. Its hero is a flawed priest, played by Ed Harris, whose task is to investigate the life and relationships of a reputed saint, only to become more earthily entangled with her angry, sensuous, sarcastic daughter, played by Anne Heche.

The Third Miracle, based on a novel by Richard Vetere, co-adapted by Vetere and John Romano, was an assignment that came to Holland, but could not have been better suited to her talents and preoccupations. Born in Poland in 1948, she was still a teenager when she rebounded from Catholicism and studied filmmaking in Prague with Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. Back in Poland, Holland worked as an assistant director for Krzysztof Zanussi and wrote Man of Iron for Andrzej Wajda. She later contributed to the screenplay of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue (1993), but her greater career has been as a director whose prevailing theme is best summed up by that dreaded phrase from the Soviet era, ”internal exile.“

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Holland‘s Oscar-nominated Angry Harvest (1985) dealt with a farmer sheltering a Jewish refugee during World War II, To Kill a Priest (1988) with a courageous Polish clergyman and the obsessed secret policeman who fatally opposes him. Europa Europa (1990) dealt with a Jewish boy pretending to be a gentile during the Nazi era, Olivier Olivier (1992) with the impenetrable estrangement a family suffers even after they are reunited with their long-lost son. The irony is that Holland made these films under the pressures of a decidedly external exile. She escaped to Paris when martial law was imposed on Poland in 1981, and returned after the regime fell in 1989 to make Europa Europa -- but where there once was lack of freedom, now there is lack of funding, and again Holland has been driven west. She keeps an office in Seattle, and a base with her daughter in Los Angeles, and, despite the poor odds, has managed to make films in English with American actors at a healthy rate of one every two years.

The films themselves -- The Secret Garden (1993), Total Eclipse (1995) and Washington Square (1997) -- may seem journeyman fare in comparison to the major work of her European period, but her mastery is ever evident. She moves her characters and her cameras with the assurance of a great choreographer. As a storyteller, Holland has that iron ore in her spirit typical of the best Polish filmmakers; she can advance with admirable clarity of eye and toughness of mind, even in the context of a children’s tale, her trademark themes of alienation. ”I forget which of my teachers said this back in the ‘60s, but I believe it is true: ’The position of the camera is a moral choice.‘“ The same rigor applies to her other preparations. ”My criteria for choosing actors is always bravery. With the right luck, courage can touch something in a performance that is beyond your normal knowledge of a human being.“

The Third Miracle might be described as the first film Holland has made in English to strike the deep chords of her work at its best; under the right circumstances, the story could have as easily been set in Poland, and mark just as powerful a step in her larger artistic growth. ”The main question each of my movies poses is the same,“ she says. ”How may a person find their inner truth, in relation to other people? In The Third Miracle, this question is also posed in relation to God, and I have never done that before. It is also the first time I finished a film feeling like I was a different person than when I began,“ she adds. ”Not more religious -- I am still too skeptical -- but certainly more open.“

The Third Miracle opens December 29.

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