"May I smoke?" Agnieszka Holland asks. It's a gracious request, considering that she's sitting in her own hotel room, during a recent visit to Phoenix.
Of course, her interviewer tells her; after all, where would a Polish director be without a cigarette in hand? "Yes," she replies, lighting up. "I try to stop several times, and my directorial skills suffer."
The Warsaw native, born in 1948, first took an interest in painting, but she's unusually frank about what turned her interest to the cinema. "When I was 15, I decided I want to make a movie. I decided painting was too lonely, and that I need power, you know, I need to tell people what they have to do."
The art cinema of the '50s and '60s provided her with early inspiration. Holland fed herself on a steady diet of Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa and her countryman Andrzej Wajda -- whom she lists as a mentor and occasional political protector -- as well as "all avant-garde cinema of the mid-'60s, you know, the French New Wave, the English 'Angry Wave.' The Italian cinema was still very alive; Fellini, Pasolini, Visconti, all those guys. It was a very rich period in world cinema."
After film school -- and late '60s political activism -- in Prague (where she got to know Vaclav Havel and to direct his play Largo Desolato), Holland made three films back in Poland. The first, Provincial Actors, chronicled the struggles of an acting troupe to stage a romantic Polish play. "It was about the struggle with censorship, and also about the struggle with the incapacity to be so good as you would like to be. It was a big metaphor for the political situation, but it was also a very Chekhovian story of the characters."
Provided with some popularity by this film, Holland then made a period drama called The Fever, about revolutionary Polish nationalists fighting the Russian government in the early 20th century, and Lonely Woman, a Zola-esque contemporary story about the relationship between a poor single mother and a crippled man. "I never did such a dark film after," she says. "I did it as kind of a provocation, because I shot this movie after Solidarity won the first time, and everybody thought it will be different in Poland now, and Wajda made the movie Man of Iron." Holland made her film against this mood of what she regarded as naive optimism.
"I hated the communist regime and I fought against it, but I think people don't know what to do with this freedom. I think they are wasting their freedom in Poland now."
Holland left Poland in 1981 for what she thought would be a trip of several weeks, but stayed away when martial law was declared. More politically tinged films followed -- the Oscar-nominated Angry Harvest (1985); To Kill a Priest (1988); and especially her gallows-humor classic Europa Europa, about a Jewish boy who ends up drafted into the Nazi army. Since then, she's made the disturbing psychological drama Olivier Olivier in France, and, for U.S. studios, a superb film of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, a not-so-good film about Rimbaud and Verlaine called Total Eclipse, and a fine adaptation of Henry James' Washington Square.
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But how did a committed leftie-political filmmaker come to make her current offering, The Third Miracle, an account of a troubled priest's investigation into the possible sainthood of a Chicago woman? "What I like about it," she says, "what was very challenging to me as a filmmaker, was that all things happened on the same level. There was no special effects, no supernatural horror fairy tale, whatever. It made miracles a part of life. It's very close in some ways to the real mysticism that we've forgot, like in Jewish tradition or Catholic tradition, the very strong feeling that miracles are just another dimension of reality."
The daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother (both nonpracticing), Holland became a Catholic in secret at the age of 11, but drifted away from the church a few years later, in part because of the anti-Semitism of many Polish priests of the time. In recent years, however, says Holland, "I entered a more metaphysical time in my life."
Even when she was making political films, she says, "the politics were part of people's lives. I wasn't fascinated by, you know, the mechanical side of the politics, but by the impact of politics on humans' choices. It might be just that politics became too boring, you know? Maybe I tell everything I have to tell about it. And also it was different situation -- I was part of a country was struggling for freedom."
Then Holland sighs, and gives vent to her political disenchantment. "Also, after doing Europa Europa, I realized one thing -- that in some way, you know, it's hopeless. You are telling this story of oppression, but you have the impression that people never will learn anything from that, anyway. Some years later, you have Yugoslavia, and some years later you have Rwanda. It's like humanity is too stupid to learn any lessons. But now I am doing something more interior . . . and I'm speaking not to humanity but to you, and to you, and to you. Oh, God, that's so refreshing."