You can’t tell at first, but Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers slowly reveals itself to be cut from the same cloth as Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Of those, Hiroshima Mon Amour is the closest resemblance, for Innocent Sorcerers has its own Nouvelle Vague sensibilities, from the way characters talk to and tease one another to the use of Krzysztof Komeda’s jazz score in the most leisurely of situations, and it has its own striking political subtext.
The film is languorous and humorous as it follows Bazyli (Tadeusz Łomnicki) throughout his day. We learn that he likes boxing, jazz, and cigarettes largely because it’s the coolest image he can assume, and the only one that can mask his political and emotional paralysis—a state shared by his bandmates and most everyone else he encounter. The only one who can one-up Bazyli in a contest of nonchalant coolness is Pelagia, the coquette he falls for, who, thanks to a wonderful performance by Krystyna Stypułkowska, is both sexy and timid, constantly renegotiating the state of her armor, trying to decide if it’s okay to let Bazyli in, or if she even has a need to let anyone in. Innocent Sorcerers is primarily about the unspoken way in which the particular state of communist Poland infiltrates private lives, but it works at least as well as a treatise on intimacy, the way we balance our fear of being hurt with our desire to love and be loved, even in what could be our most fleeting of encounters. Indeed, it’s the fleetingness of the encounter that makes it scarier: one wrong move, and the chance could be lost forever, or the hurt could manifest itself primarily in the form of blame.
Bazyli cannot even allow Pelagia to board a bus home without changing his mind about letting her leave, but when he is immediately greeted with the ticket she has purchased for him, he’s too dumbstruck to say anything. We know early on, then, that he is outmatched. Indeed, if Bazyli is a romantic, he is a romantic who speaks in botched poetic monologues and loses out on a kiss as a result. At the same time, however, it’s quite fitting to see him being teased after he makes at date with a journalist and then immediately throws away her contact information, as if he was content simply to prove he could get it. The rest of Innocent Sorcerers puts him in her position, waiting for a call that might never come. It’s as if all the hearts he broke were being worked out as not being worth the risk, that either the chance of heart break was too high to take action or else the reward would have been too short term to risk rejection. Put the two failed connections together, and it demonstrates the futility of even the most sincere gestures in a depersonalized society.
This is best shown in a scene in which the two play a mutually titillating game of strip-matchbox. She gets off to an early lead, but just when his comeback is about to get him somewhere, the two have lost interest, he deciding he’s too much of a gentleman and she appearing nervous about having to show far more than she thought she would. Even the best (or at least best-intentioned) ideas reveal a cold core and a nervousness to make potentially fatal mistakes.
It’s entirely a testament to Wajda’s directorial skill that this subtext is at all political, as the script itself lacks any mention of politics or even ideological undertones. But by giving the flirtatious exchanges a weary mood by letting his camera freely observe the details of Bazyli’s apartment, or by letting it glide and wander languidly as the two walk, sometimes together, sometimes not, he undercuts the drama, telling us that what is going to happen isn’t as important as the lyrical and cognitive subtexts. This isn’t about whether the two end up together so much as what their interactions, moment to moment, can tell us about how people in this particular time and place think and act.
Indeed, whenever the promise of something major is made—the aforementioned strip game, a scripted idea of their first night—the camera tightens its gaze, only for characters to revert to noncommittal actions before things take off. Anytime something important is about to happen, characters, as if out of cowardice, need to put their masks back on. If tensions reach a boiling point, it’s telling that they are resolved through a boxing match—a controlled manner that is even a hobby of the characters—instead of a real confrontation. When all is said and done, nothing has been done. Even days full of promise turn into almost ritualistic repetitions of the same meaningless gestures. The next morning, you wake up to empty, broken promises.