In Warsaw, a student only known as the "Italian" (Polish: Włoszka, played by Iwona Petry) is on the search for an apartment. The Italian, who is beautiful and a free spirit, is originally from the countryside. During her search she meets anthropology professor Michał (Bogusław Linda), who is renting her an apartment that was occupied by his brother. The business is concluded by a violent sex scene between the two in the empty apartment.
Michał is engaged with Anna (Agnieszka Wagner), an architect and daughter of his director. During excavations with his students and his younger colleague Juliuz (Paweł Deląg) he finds the well-conserved body of a shaman more than two thousand years old. In the laboratory they study the mummified shaman, who is covered in mystical tattoos and is found to have a pouch of hallucinogenic mushrooms. They try to determine the cause of the shaman's death, which does not seem to be natural. The back of his skull has been crushed; they theorise this was perhaps done to release his spirit after his death.
The life of Michał is turned upside down by the discovery of the shaman's body and his increasingly obsessive love affair with the Italian. For the Italian, he breaks with his fiancée Anna and his friends. He tries to tame the Italian, but she resists his domination, always unforeseeable and rebellious. In the laboratory, the researchers consume the shaman's mushrooms, and in a delirium attempt to bring him back to life. In a moment of illumination, Michał speaks with the spirit of the shaman. He reveals to him that he was killed by a woman who wanted to capture his magic power. Michał, who finally regards himself as free and lucid, breaks up with the Italian. She bludgeons him to death, crushing the back of his skull, like the shaman's, and eats his brain.
The screenplay had been written by Manuela Gretkowska, a Polish writer and feminist. The screenplay had initially been rejected by Polish Television due to its controversial content. The production was then financed by Canal + Polska, Visa Films, the French Compagnie des Films and several private investors.
Written with a truly feminist mettle by a very young woman who has been enjoying dazzling literary success in Poland, the screenplay demands of the director a sense of restraint, mystery and depth that can make it address to young Europeans today. The violence, exuberance and sexuality of the author's text are as much signs of revolt as of intelligence. My hope is to respond to that freshness by consolidating it with maturity and an aestethic sense that will bring out all its latent lyricism.
Actor Iwona Petry was chosen by Director Żuławski after he met her accidentally in a cafe in Warsaw. Petry, who at this time was a sociology student, had no previous acting experience. Although there were rumors in the Polish press that Żuławski used voodoo to improve the performance of Petry, she was in fact trained by French coach Harmel Sbraire, who had previously worked with Juliette Binoche. Bogusław Linda was chosen for the role of Michał because of his star status in Poland. Żuławski and Linda had a difficult relationship on the set and the two were even bitterly commenting on each other in the Polish press. Nevertheless, after completion of the film Żuławski called Linda a "charismatic actor".
The soundtrack was written by composer Andrzej Korzyński, who had also written the soundtrack for Żuławski's previous films Possession, The Silver Globe and My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days. The soundtrack is an electronic score and relies on two main themes. The first main theme, Szamanka is used primarily in mood transition scenes. The second main theme Zdrowas Mario is used first in the sex scene between the "Italian" and Michał.
The film was shot both in Warsaw and Kraków. In Warsaw shooting took place at Warszawa Centralna railway station, in the Praga Północ district and in the main administration building of the Polish railway PKP. In Kraków the film was shot at the Central Station and the University of Science and Technology.
The film generated some controversy in Poland due to its explicit depiction of sex and its criticism of traditional morality and Catholicism. Due to its scandalous nature the film was also nicknamed "Last Tango in Warsaw" by Polish critics. Polish authorities permitted only a limited release, allowing only two late screenings a day in select theaters. In Poland the film sold about 400,000 tickets. In France, the film had a limited theatrical release and sold 11,150 tickets. Szamanka was also screened during the Venice Film Festival in 1996.