Set in a summer school for students of linguistics, Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1976 film centres on a conflict between two academics: the world-weary and cynical Jakub Szelestowski (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz) and the idealistic 26-year-old Jaroslaw (Piotr Garlicki). In the competition for the best and most innovative paper, a student wants to submit his essay after the deadline. The paper contains some interesting ideas and Jaroslaw decides to bend the rules and accept it. The work is welcomed with enthusiasm by other students, yet the essay which wins the competition is poor and imitative, just as predicted by Szelestowski. The conflict between the two scholars increases. Szelestowski treats the whole episode as a kind of game, whereas for young Jaroslaw it is a test of character and a matter of ethical principle.

The confrontation between the two protagonists—cynical careerist versus young idealist—provides the basis for Zanussi’s portrait of the conformity of the Polish intelligentsia. Yet the film might also be seen to contain a universal metaphor for social relationships and the mechanisms that drive them. The title refers to a kind of mask or social role that’s designed to conceal real beliefs for the sake of career advancement. Szelestowski consciously chooses compromise and opportunism so that he can live more comfortably. He skilfully manipulates Jaroslaw, who becomes so infuriated by his colleague that he is driven to physical attack in defiance of his own professional morality. The winner of numerous festival prizes, including the Grand Prix at the 1977 Polish Film Festival in Gdansk, this is one of Zanussi’s finest films.

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