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‘Wałesa: Man of Hope’

by Kaori Shoji

Poland’s legendary filmmaker Andrzej Wajda takes on Lech Wałesa, Poland’s man of the people, in this fictional documentary “Wałesa: Man of Hope,” and it comes as somewhat of a surprise.

At 88 years old, Wajda’s insular and experimental artistic approach has shifted to a more global and, dare one say it, entertaining mode. Wajda fans noted the shift in 2007 when he came out with “Katyn,” which rendered the Katyn massacre of 1940 (in which Wajda’s father was killed) accessible to an audience with little or no knowledge of World War II. And now Wajda has crafted “Wałesa” (originally titled “Wałesa. Czlowiek z Nadziei”) with a global audience in mind. When it was shown at the Chicago International Film Festival last year, young moviegoers gave a standing ovation; one even described Lech Wałesa as a “cool dude.”

In 1970, Wałesa (Robert Wieckiewicz) is working in a Gdansk shipyard, married to the formidable Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska) and expecting the first of eight children that the couple would eventually have together. The news comes in that a labor uprising is about to happen, and Wałesa rushes to the scene, where he tries and fails to stop the police from killing the workers. Wałesa himself is arrested and jailed, later he’s released on condition that he becomes a spy for the government. Wałesa conveniently forgets his pledge and begins honing his abilities as an activist, workers’ leader and relentless negotiator.

Interestingly, “Wałesa” depicts the former Polish president (1990-1995) and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize as anything but cool. In many instances he comes off as an Iron Curtain, labor-activist version of Chris Christie — terrifically clunky but undeniably charismatic. Wajda pulls no punches in drawing the Solidarity leader who bulldozed rather than navigated his way through the torturous nooks and crannies of Polish communist politics.

Wałesa made as many enemies as comrades and was sometimes hated by the very people he claimed to represent; it’s still a subject of debate whether the pendulum swings in his popularity affected his psyche. But love him or not, “Wałesa” paints an intimate portrait of a mesmerizing man. That one of the most recognizable leftist icons of the 20th century is still living (and apparently good friends with Wajda) adds to the fist-clenching drama.

Though the story loses its careful pacing from time to time (Wajda weaves in archival news footage, with mixed results), “Wałesa: Man of Hope” is a brilliant, towering mountain of a film, inviting the viewer to scale its cliff-face and breathe in the sharp air. It seems hugely providential that the film comes out at a time when workers everywhere are given short shrift and income inequality is destroying the fabric of modern society. If we can’t get “Wałesa,” that’s probably a reason to be worried. It’s good to see how a man of Solidarity fought his battles.