by Michael Hammerschlag

The 43rd Molodist festival kicked off with a red carpet presentation of famous Polish director's Andrzej Wajda rousing biopic Walesa: Man of Hope on the great Lech Walesa at Palace Ukraine Saturday evening- the simple Polish worker who brought down an empire.. or started the process. "Walesa" was variously pronounced Valessa, Valensa, Waleska- for years newscasters put their own spin on his name. Numerous celebrities were in attendance: Sergei Tigypko was holding court in the lobby, and former Pres. Yushchenko strode on stage, presented an award to the movie's producer and gave a speech hailing Molodist for bringing the world to Ukraine to expose its rich culture. A huge troop of Ukrainian dancer/singers intoned timeless native standards in rippling harmonics, and actress Nataliya Sumska surprised the audience with a short aria

The contradictory nature of Walesa is vividly portrayed by actor Robert Wieckiewicz- at once a rabble rouser, a fighter, a devoted husband, a gifted speaker, a pain in the butt; he was also a superb political strategist who knew just how far to push the authorities to avoid violence, which Poland never really suffered (like E. Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia- which saw thousands killed by Soviet/ally troops). At the time, I wrote that they had to crack down on him, lest the virus of independence spread throughout the Warsaw Pact- and December 1981, Gen. Jarejelsky did, supposedly to forestall another Soviet invasion- imprisoning Lech and cracking down on Solidarity for a year till the death of ossified Brezhnev loosened the screws. The brutality of the Communist system: the coercion, co-option, and corruption- the police visits, blackmail, threats, and beatings are graphically displayed and underscore the deep courage it took to stay the course. Real locations are used in the Gdansk shipyards, and Wieckiewicz's face is sometimes integrated onto historical footage.

Wieckiewicz shows Walesa's innate confidence, even arrogance, side by side with his self-depreciating analysis in a recurring interview with famous Italian celebrity journalist Oriana Fallaci- she was able to coax out amazing admissions from everyone, and famously described the madness of 1968, when the world seemed to be ripping in half, from the Tet Offensive to the Kennedy-King assassinations, to the Chicago conventions- where she goes straight from the madness of free-fire Vietnam to Mexico City helicopter gunships opening fire into a student protest high-rise in an incredible bloodbath that never got much exposure. Walesa's long suffering but tough young wife is sensitively portrayed by Agnieszka Grochowska as Walesa repeated leaves his wedding ring and watch and heads off for possible doom, with instructions to sell it if he doesn't return. He constantly struggles with the hot-heads on his strike committee to not push too far- to not provoke the wrath that could easily become total.

At the time Walesa seemed preternaturally courageous, a lone man standing up to a hurricane of careless cruelty, a system that had killed tens of millions, and subjugated or enslaved hundreds more. Nobody thought he would survive. In truth the System was rotton to the core, built on lies, stained by blood, riven with faults, and collapsing from within. Walesa goes on the win the Nobel Peace Prize and become free Poland's first President, as his secret police tormentors rue that, "he got away".

Incredibly durable 87 year old Andrzej Wajda returns to a theme he did in Man of Marble ('77), and Man of Iron ('81) where Walesa was never explicitly indentified. It was perhaps inevitable that the Communist / Soviet empire would be brought down by Poles, an almost fanatically courageous people who suffered worse in WW2 than perhaps anyone but Ukraine and Russia. Walesa was that spark- that right man in the right place at the right time, and without him, the peaceful collapse of the Eastern Block and Soviet Union may have taken a different path. He was vastly helped by the timely seemingly miraculous ascension of Polish Pope John Paul II of Krakow, and the sea forces that unleashed. This movie portrays his inspiring life and times with humor, zest, and grace, and is highly recommended.

Airs again 14:30, Oct 20 at Zhovten Cinema, and probably widely soon.