Milada (2017)

First biopic of Milada Horáková, who resisted the Nazis but was executed by the communists in Czechoslovakia, is an utter disappointment.

MiladaCzech Republic
2.5*

Director:
David Mrnka

Screenwriters:
David Mrnka
Robert J. Conant
Robert Gant

Director of Photography:
Martin Štrba

Running time: 125 minutes

Milada is about one of the most heroic characters of the 20th century and among her native Czechoslovakia’s most tragic figures under the country’s decades-long totalitarian rule. Filmmakers had avoided telling her story for a long time, but nearly 70 years after a show trial staged by the country’s communist regime and a decade after new footage of the excruciatingly biased nine-day trial was discovered, we finally have a film meant to share the full story with us. It is painful to watch – but for all the wrong reasons.

The film depicts nearly two decades in the life of Milada Horáková, an outspoken Czechoslovak lawyer who came of age at the same time as her country and was active in the resistance during Nazi occupation. Despite an initial death sentence, she was eventually imprisoned until the end of the war and elected to the Constituent National Assembly, but after the communist coup in February 1948, which she vehemently and vocally opposed, she was arrested and ultimately executed.

And yet, despite its basis in real life, Milada is an atrocious piece of filmmaking. First-time director David Mrnka clearly made an effort with period costumes, but whether because of a lack of money, of creativity, or of filmmaking experience (likely all of the above), the film commits one sin after another.

At a very basic level, the transitions between scenes are laughable. Mrnka seems to believe he has only two tools at his disposal: the spinning newspaper headline (to provide wider historical context, the way films did at the time) and the fade-out (to indicate the passage of anything from hours to years). Both of these processes are sorely overused and suggest an editor asleep behind the console.

The intention was never to borrow filmmaking techniques that were in use in the 1930s and 1940s, however, as we get five almost identical sequences of Horáková’s family in the car in 1948/1949, driving along the same road in the Czech countryside to visit family close to the border, while many of the shots are obtained by drone. Now, obviously, drones have no business in a historical film unless they are used, as in Milada’s final minutes, in the context of a shot whose existence is not tied to a specific moment in time. The use of the drone – not one, but FIVE times – is nauseating, onanistic and entirely inappropriate.

There is little to say about the copious use of the fade-out – a shake of the head and a deep eye-roll will suffice. But sometimes the fade-outs are so obtrusive that they terminate a scene before its emotional climax. The scene in which Milada is taken away by the State Security is staged in such a way that her husband, Bohuslav Horák, watches her being driven away as he hides behind a corner. When the car passes, we get a point-of-view shot from inside the car, which implies Milada sees Bohuslav’s shocked face. But before we get a reverse shot from Bohuslav’s POV, the editor presses the “fade out” button, ending the scene prematurely and completely forgoing a shot that would have taken our breath away.

Ayelet Zurer, an Israeli actress with a Czechoslovakia-born mother, stars in the lead. The entire cast is made to speak in a Czech-inflected English, but only the Czech players can do this convincingly. In addition, Zurer likely didn’t have enough time to prepare, as her accent is not only generally bad but also inconsistent: Sometimes within a single sentence she can’t decide whether to roll her r’s or to pronounce them the American way (Czech only has rolled/trilled r’s). Other non-Czech actors also struggle mightily with the accent, and Robert Gant, who plays Bohuslav, settles on something akin to a Russian accent, which, considering that his character is wholly opposed to Soviet influence, is very unfortunate.

Even the bookends, which feature Horáková’s daughter, Jana, collecting her late mother’s letters to her from the newly elected democratic government shortly after the collapse of communism, miss the mark completely. We are told that Jana fled to Washington, D.C., in 1968, where she has lived since then. And yet, when actress Taťjana Medvecká speaks English, there is not even a hint of an American accent in her speech; on the contrary, the accent is entirely oriented towards British English.

But what is most jarring in this production is the lack of introductions to major characters. Jan Masaryk, the son of Czechoslovakia’s founding father and a long-time diplomat, is shown on the night of what is widely assumed to be his murder (although oddly enough, the film presents his death in a very ambiguous way). But he is barely introduced, and those unfamiliar with Czech history are unlikely to know what or whom they are looking at. Other characters, from Alois Schmidt, who appears to be an associate of Horáková’s, to the callous state prosecutor Ludmila Brožová-Polednová, right up to the slightly comical Prime Minister Klement Gottwald, are either not introduced by name or sketched so superficially that the uninitiated will struggle to understand their role in the events.

Most bizarrely, Horáková’s alleged co-conspirators appear out of nowhere at the trial. We have never seen them before, and we can easily assume she had never met them before, but that is not historically accurate. The film ignores the fact that five of them had the same party affiliation as her. Nonetheless, there is absolutely no contact – not even a sympathetic or a fearful glance exchanged – between them.

Finally, the staging of the show trial does not make anything dramatic of the vulnerable position in which Horáková is placed: a slightly raised podium in front of a long row of judges and Communist Party officials, where the defendant is made to stand awkwardly in full public view. There is no creativity to the camerawork or the composition of the visuals. Instead, we basically get a colourised version of the original television footage. 

Perhaps the only thing Milada does right is to suggest that, in some respects, the communists were far worse than the Nazis. This comparison remains a sore point in present-day Czech society. Nazis, and Germans more generally, were thrown out of the country after the Second World War; by contrast, the communists stayed and remained part of society after the collapse of their regime. But when we learn that Milada Horáková was allowed to see her family when she was imprisoned by the Nazis, while the Communists refused any and all contact, it is impossible to ignore the contrast. The film’s courage to speak the truth in this regard is commendable.

Despite the exemplary life and tragic death of its titular character, the film is an utter failure. It provides a vague outline of events, but the myriad fade-outs are simply farcical, and the mediocre performances and the badly structured narrative keep us at arm’s length from the flow of history that should have swept us off our feet.

Tambylles (2012)

By deliberately avoiding all forms of confrontation, this very uneven hourlong graduation film turns its main character’s already undramatic existence into rigid stasis.

TambyllesCzech Republic
2*

Director:
Michal Hogenauer

Screenwriters:
Michal Hogenauer

Markéta Jindřichová
Director of Photography:
Adam Stretti

Running time: 58 minutes

Tambylles (a title that translates as Therewasaforest), a one-hour film that Michal Hogenauer made as his FAMU graduate film, is as uncomfortable to watch as its main character, an anonymous young guy from a small Czech town who has recently been released from a juvenile detention centre. Stripped down to very minimalist scenes and a lead actor who always has to contain his emotions, this film is not particularly viewer-friendly.

At first, we seem to be watching a documentary: An increasingly annoying filmmaker is interviewing people and asking persistent, provocative questions. But slowly, as the credibility of the staging becomes more and more suspicious, we realise this is a film within a film, with the fictional filmmaker presented inside more static, well-composed images. Luckily for us, director Hogenauer’s preoccupation with form is done away with more or less as soon as this fictional filmmaker’s attempts to provoke confrontation fail to deliver and he leaves the central plot.

These well-composed images are certainly one of the highlights of the experience of watching Tambylles, although I found myself tuning out very often because there is so little to tune into. Though the fictional filmmaker tried to construct the first 15 minutes of the film in a way so every interview is interrupted in order to create a cliffhanger, our anticipation constantly heightened, we find out very little about the central character and the events that sent him to the Big House. “Everyone one should know what he did”, says one character. Yes, they should, but what is it?

Given the fact this central character says so very little, becomes more and more isolated from society and from us and isn’t even given a name, he does not represent something universal – rather, he fades out in every scene to which he is supposed to bring some substance, or interest.

Nonetheless, actor Ivan Říha has captivating eyes that pull the viewer toward the screen. Despite his character’s visible solitude, a completely unbelievable domestic situation – not just the lack of chemistry between him and his parents but a lack of any feeling whatsoever – and a lack of much to hold on to in terms of character traits, we certainly want to find out more, and he offers the promise of something more. Unfortunately, he never fulfils that promise.

It is difficult to become involved in the development of a film that is going nowhere. We keep waiting for confrontations that Hogenauer instead chooses to avoid. The confrontation (provoked by the fictional filmmaker) between him and the mother of his victim is wordless and actionless; the confrontation between him and the fictional filmmaker consists of him grabbing the camera and storming off, though this action is elided by means of a cut; the confrontation between him and his boss, who discovers his secret, is avoided when he storms off, again; and a final suicidal confrontation is shown without any sound.

Minimalism is one thing, but deliberate obstinance is another. Říha’s face (the only thing the character has going for him) can only interest us for a limited time, and that time is much shorter than the film’s 58-minute length.

Hogenauer shows great promise with his camera, but the images he creates cannot inspire us to sympathise with a character who encounters resistance everywhere he goes. Moreover, we have no real clue about his past and don’t get an insight into his feelings in the present. Along the way, a character played by Hogenauer himself steals away the girl who might have brought this guy out of his shell. A fitting metaphor.

Anthropoid (2016)

True-to-life account of the two heroes behind a stunning assassination in the heart of Nazi-occupied Bohemia is brilliantly staged but marred by peculiar editing decisions and mishmash of accents.

anthropoidUK/Czech Republic
3.5*

Director:
Sean Ellis

Screenwriters:
Sean Ellis

Anthony Frewin
Director of Photography:
Sean Ellis

Running time: 120 minutes

There are few people as unequivocally heroic yet as little known outside their home country as Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík. Czechoslovak soldiers born during the First World War, they would grow to see their proud nation in the heart of Europe betrayed by the Allied forces and handed over to Nazi Germany by the time they reached their mid-20s. Their supreme act of bravery – assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s cold-blooded emissary to the occupied territory of Bohemia and Moravia – ultimately did little to change the tide against the Nazis, but the stand they took against the Third Reich is one of the most admirable acts of the 20th century.

UK director Sean Ellis spent many years developing the screenplay for Anthropoid (the title refers to the codename of the two soldiers’ top-secret mission), and the film’s plot closely resembles the events as they occurred at the end of 1941 and the first half of 1942. However, accuracy and entertainment are by no means the same thing, and it is with this latter point that the director fails to make an adequate impression.

Anthropoid opens late on a cold December night when the two men, who had received their orders from the Czech government-in-exile in the United Kingdom, are dropped 30 kilometres from Prague. Anthropoid screenplay is boldly structured to eschew flashbacks and to limit itself to the Czech territory for exactly as long as the two men’s lifespan.

Very little happens over the course of the first hour, however. Although there is a sense of foreboding regarding the execution of the plan, Ellis does a poor job of showing us life under occupation. Czechs appear to go about their business, even as Germans in uniform show up at their cafés and bars, but there is no real feeling for the Czechs and their (presumably) terrified frame of mind. Uncle Hajský (Toby Jones, whose presence in the film is very steadying) expresses anger about the 1938 Munch Agreement, but that is as much as we get. The film also makes very little effort to show us the camaraderie between the two men who spend six months in very close proximity, most of the time hiding the real purpose of their presence in the Prague to everyone around them.

Unfortunately, because of the actors involved and a number of peculiar decisions made during the editing process, the final product is wildly uneven.

The actors are Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy as the Czech Kubiš and the Slovak Gabčík, respectively, and it was certainly a clever bit of casting, with Dornan being a native of Northern Ireland while Murphy hails from the Republic of Ireland. This cleverness, however, cannot make up for Dornan’s unshakable Irish lilt that hits us every time he opens his mouth, which has the effect of leaving the viewer wholly alienated from the story’s time and place.

Among the rest of the cast, the inconsistency in pronunciation is another nuisance. From a financial point of view, it is understandable that the film was made in English. But while the accents are already imperfect, the issue is compounded by the fact that some Czech cast members choose to pronounce uniquely Czech letters (such as the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce “ř”) in their native tongue, while other players stick to the closest English equivalent.

The editing process is equally flawed, and perhaps the most egregious examples are the otherwise stunning set pieces that serve as pivotal moments in the narrative: the assassination of Heydrich, which takes place in public in broad daylight, and a six-hour shootout inside the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral.

Both of these events, while meticulously staged and deserving of admiration because of how they unfold, have their sound turned off at the most crucial moments. At times, they are only accompanied by the soft sounds of an extradiegetic piano, which imbues them with a cloak of artistry when they require a more gritty sense of immediacy.

The film’s opening minutes are similarly inelegant. After a few introductory bits of text that are misleading at best and historically inaccurate at worst (Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 and its full-scale invasion of Czechoslovakia less than six months later are seemingly lumped together), we get a handful of shots in close, slapdash succession that communicate precious little but point to a director more interested in telling his story through the editing suite than with the camera.

Visually, there is nothing particularly memorable about Anthropoid, at least not in a good way, as the film is tinged in a golden hue that is completely unnecessary, and Prague is always covered in a thick layer of fog, with only a church spire, a few rooftops and Prague Castle visible, most likely in order to save money.

And yet, despite all these problems, Ellis does draw on some genuinely moving material in subtle and very effective ways. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the entire film comes very early on when the two parachutists are questioned by the Prague Resistance: Kubiš’s response to a question about his hometown in Moravia shimmers with nostalgia and patriotism conveyed through words alone that conjure up a single image. In that moment, we understand Kubiš’s firm connection to his country and why he has come back to defend it against the ongoing Nazi aggression. Quite simply, it is extraordinary.

Dornan’s accent does not do him any favours, and in general he appears to be absent from the narrative, except for the numerous close-ups on his shivering hands (to make the point, in no uncertain terms, that he is also just a man and does not have nerves of steel). By contrast, Murphy excels as Gabčík, and so does Anna Geislerová, who plays his romantic interest, Lenka, a young woman who has already seen more than her share of violence and experienced more pain during the war than we could imagine.

It would have required a real genius to turn this story of bravery and success-despite-all-odds into anything but riveting, not unlike the entertaining hatchet job that Wolfgang Petersen did with Troy. The lead-up to the action-packed final act is rather dull and dreary, although Ellis has to be commended for minimising the visibility of swastikas – usually a hallmark of these kinds of films, but it is particularly disheartening that the two major set pieces fall short of perfection because of the sound choices. In addition, the climax contains a laughable hallucination that has no place in the film.

This is a story that everyone should be aware of, and this is the most poignant portrayal of the story to date, but the film itself would have benefited from a greater focus on realistic sound, particularly with regard to the accents of the cast.

Schmitke (2015)

Début filmmaker’s surreal mystery set in the Czech countryside is a baffling take on finding identity.

schmitkeCzech Republic/Germany
3.5*

Director:
Štěpán Altrichter

Screenwriters:
Jan Fusek

Tomáš Končinský
Štěpán Altrichter
Director of Photography:
Cristian Pirjol

Running time: 95 minutes

Something is a little off in the German-language Schmitke, which opens in Berlin – where there is much talk of a “Bear-Man” who has been discovered in the wild – and closes deep in the forests of the former Sudetenland, on the Czech side of the border with Germany. Right at the beginning, when we first meet the title character, a middle-aged, unsmiling engineer (Peter Kurth) working for Deutsche Windenergie, we notice this German company has English-language posters on which the word “engineers” is misspelled. It is a small point, but if you notice it, you will immediately recognise that the world of the film is deliberately warped and confused, and things quickly get even weirder.

Julius Schmitke’s daughter arrives out of the blue and (literally) sets up camp inside his house, adding a statue of Buddha to his furnishings and trying to convince him to reconsider his nondescript existence. At work, his boss decides to send him and his loudmouth assistant, Thomas (Johann Jürgens), to the Ore Mountains to fix a broken wind turbine, and once the two arrive in the backwoods of civilisation, where the fog hangs thick and the forest almost becomes a character, everything they knew is turned upside down.

Schmitke is unconventional and uncategorisable, striving simultaneously to be a gentle contemplation of the mysteries of nature and a madcap absurdist thriller. Directed by the young Czech filmmaker Štěpán Altrichter, it is impossible to ever get a firm grip on the events that, as revealed during the final credits, may all just be a big dream.

The opening scenes at the energy company in Berlin have moments reminiscent of Roy Andersson’s work, especially when a crowd of people, expressionless and motionless, intently focuses on the only object in the room that is in motion. For the most part, Kurth’s imperturbable, deadpan performance is very effective, as it counters the actions of others in unpredictable ways. But the major plot point driving the narrative forward – the sudden and unexplained disappearance of Thomas – gets lost in the thick, mysterious atmosphere that Altrichter so painstakingly constructs.

With the exception of Julie (Helena Dvořáková), who runs a fancy hotel on a hilltop, it is impossible to describe anyone in the film as devoid of eccentricity, and the director emphasises the peculiarities of the Czech rural population in particular with sly digs at their language (Julie’s surname is the unpronouncable Řeřichová, the town is Chřmelava) and customs (upon arriving in the tiny town, Thomas proclaims they have travelled back in time; and in the bar, a deadly silence fills the room when Schmitke asks for tea instead of beer).

The style of the film may perhaps be best described as a kind of provincial surrealism mixed with poetic absurdism that leads to scenes such as a GPS system breaking down by changing its mind (“turn right… no… turn left…”) and a wind turbine that seemingly stops and starts just to provoke and confound the rational Schmitke.

Schmitke is no Homo Faber, but in the end, he does show some potential for having a fuller appreciation of the inexplicable. It is just a shame that the film itself nearly collapses in the process. It switches gears too rapidly from broad comedy to observational minimalism, and especially the second half of the film feels like a slow-motion implosion that is only flimsily sustained by the comical sounds of the Hammond organ on the soundtrack and the screeching sounds of the wind turbine struggling to rotate its blades.

Some of the film’s most intelligent details are its small moments of humour, like when Schmitke and Thomas get keys to rooms ‘1’ and ‘3’, clearly signalling impending misfortune, or the unexpected words of wisdom of an old lady at the bar, or the subtle repetition of incidents suggesting we may either be seeing different shades of the same event or people running on a hamster wheel.

There are few answers – even the questions are in short supply – and this lack of concrete information will frustrate many a viewer looking for a sturdy narrative backbone.

Unfortunately, the abundance of shots of the forest and the director’s unwillingness to make language more of an issue (everybody in this Czech hamlet can apparently speak almost perfect German, which leads to absolutely no discomfort, ever) hurt the audience’s involvement in this film that should have been much shorter than its 100-minute running time. Also, a shot in which Schmitke walks off-screen through heavy fog in a fixed long shot could have been utilised much more effectively, for example, by having him re-enter from the other side, at the same or at another location.

Schmitke is an experimental but quirky take on finding oneself. It is not always successful at keeping us engaged, and its second act is unnecessarily slow, but the rich soundtrack and unflappable performance of the lead actor will make this an interesting addition to any festival lineup.

Viewed at the 22nd International Film Festival Prague (Febiofest)

The Snake Brothers (2015)

Two brothers – one addicted to drugs, the other yearning to be his own boss – make the most of their limited means in the bleak Czech countryside.

snake-brothers-kobry-uzovkyCzech Republic
4*

Director:
Jan Prušinovský
Screenwriter:
Jaroslav Žváček

Director of Photography:
Petr Koblovský

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Kobry a užovky

Petr, aka “Cobra”, is in his 20s and unemployed in Kralupy nad Vltavou, a town just north of Prague in Central Bohemia. He dyes his short hair purple, and in the opening scene we find him walking down an empty street with bolt cutters on his back. He notices a semi-abandoned wooden house and decides to empty it of its electrical appliances. Shamelessly, he piles them into a trolley – in full view of the gobsmacked neighbour – before heading back out.

His older brother, Vojtěch, aka “Viper”, is working in a factory but often arrives late because he so frequently has to deal with the police who phone him up at night when Cobra causes a public disturbance, yelling from the rooftops about his latest “plan”. Viper is tired of the factory work, exhausted because he is not sleeping enough and fed up with being told he is not pulling his weight. He tells his employer to go jump in a lake and makes his way to the nearest pub.

The Snake Brothers was directed by Jan Prušinovský and stars real-life brothers Kryštof and Matěj Hádek as the two fictional siblings. The characters in Prušinovský’s film have little chance or ambition to escape the closed cycle of existence in their small town, but the director is never too hard nor too soft on them, and sometimes their desperate acts can be simultaneously heartbreaking and humorous.

The main thrust of the narrative concerns Viper’s steady trajectory towards control, as he opens a clothing store and works hard to make it successful. His evolution into a master of his own destiny is helped, in no small part, by his unexpected decision to seize the moment and address a group of German businessmen in German, a language he hasn’t spoken since his East German father left the family years ago.

At the same time, Viper has to contend with Cobra’s ever-fried mental state and proclivity toward kleptomania in order to finance his cocaine habit. He also has to deal with his lazy shop assistant, Zuzana, who is unfortunately the wife of his best friend, Tomáš.

Although the relationship between the brothers is obviously front and centre in the film, Tomáš is easily one of its most interesting characters. Actor Jan Hájek channels a man who is focused, sensitive and patient, and he is perhaps the only person in the story whom the viewer can truly admire, although Viper has by far the most complex personality. 

Dialogue tumbles like a dirty river out of the characters’ mouths. In fact, they might just be the most foul-mouthed of any film this year (unfortunately, the English subtitles don’t fully convey the power and the unfailing filth of the original Czech), but our attention always remains riveted to what they are saying, and how they are saying it.

The language, sometimes comical but often used by people in desperate situations, is complemented by actions that are similar in kind and work wonders to prevent the audience from feeling like they are falling into the characters’ abyss of desperation. In one scene, for example, Cobra steals a phone from someone’s handbag at a party. The victim sees him, but instead of assaulting him in response, the lady merely takes back her phone and returns it to the handbag.

It is a small moment that elicits a big laugh and shows that the people around Cobra have understanding for him. He is not a threat to their existence, and while he is utterly irresponsible, there is no need for trumped-up drama to entertain us. In this case, on the contrary, it is the unexpected lack of drama that sometimes provokes our amusement.

What sets this film apart from other similar depictions of desperation in the Czech countryside (Zdeněk Jiráský’s incredibly affecting 2011 feature film Flower Buds / Poupata comes to mind) is that while it has many moments that appear to suggest a future of near-hopelessness for its central characters, the filmmaker does not put them through hell just to make a point or to stun us with despair. The scenes of Cobra getting wasted or going to the local gambling den to waste the money he has stolen from a vulnerable member of his family remind us of the constant monotony and melancholy in which he finds himself.

The final scene brings with it a shocking revelation that we don’t see coming, as we realise one of the central characters has become the replacement for one of the most despicable individuals in the film. To some extent, we are happy there has been development but mournful over the direction in which this has occurred for this person.

The Snake Brothers is presented very tightly with some highly commendable decisions made in the editing room, especially one late-night act of larceny that involves a television set.

Far from being the gloomy and/or uneventful work that similar features often want to be (like Flower Buds and Nowhere in Moravia / Díra u Hanušovic, respectively), this is a strong tale told by a storyteller in total control of his material, complemented by a wonderful soundtrack.

Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 

Miracle (2013)

Attempt to show mental problems of a girl in Slovak working class is a failure about as dismal as the central character’s prospects in life.

zazrak-miracleSlovakia/Czech Republic
2*

Director:
Juraj Lehotský

Screenwriters:
Martin Leščák

Juraj Lehotský
Director of Photography:
Noro Hudec

Running time: 80 minutes

Miracle (Zázrak) by documentary filmmaker Juraj Lehotský is a fiction film that was clearly influenced by the work of the Dardenne brothers. Unfortunately, a very flimsy storyline, continual jumps in the narrative and a main character who is about as inactive and unlikeable as they come produce a film that is equally uninspiring and far removed from the Dardennes’ studies of the working class.

We first meet Ela, from the Malacky District, the country’s westernmost area, asleep in the car; she is on her way to a correctional facility, where she will spend an indeterminate period of time recuperating with many other girls her age whose scarred arms speak volumes about their emotional state. Ela is expressionless for almost the entire film, but she is also nearly speechless, refusing to share her problems or thoughts because she is certain no one will understand her or care for her.

She had a breakdown when her mother started dating a man Ela describes as “a moron”, but for the most part Ela is annoyed that the relationship between her and her mother is non-existent, and that she has, for all intents and purposes, lost both of her parents.

Having established the disintegration of family life, it is perhaps no surprise that Ela soon discovers she is pregnant, but without a high-school diploma, no money and few prospects, any hope of taking care of herself, never mind a child, is far-fetched at best. Roby, the father of her child, is a drug addict who lives in a small storage room on the side of the highway and already has a child, whom he has never spoken to.

At the facility in the woods where she discovers her pregnancy after a fainting spell, she tells another girl that Roby had caught her stealing something in the shop where he works, and because he didn’t know what to do with her, they ended up together. That’s not exactly the stuff dreams are made of, but Ela seems convinced – despite the evidence to the contrary – Roby would support her if she just escaped from her temporary home.

Ela shows almost no growth throughout the film; we cannot empathise with her because we know nothing of her life prior to the events depicted here (it seems she never had any friends, or at least anyone who would care about where she now finds herself), and because she treats her mother much worse than her mother treats her, we actually end up sympathising with the mother, who is certainly not without faults of her own.

In general, Ela is not just a problem child but seems like a genuinely stupid individual who makes her own life hard, irritates those around her and doesn’t have any social skills. She insults her stepfather even though her boyfriend is exactly the same kind of drone and has a drug habit to boot, and to get money when they need to pay back the drug dealers, she offers to become a prostitute, only to close up like a clam when she has to perform for her new clients.

Miracle‘s director of photography, Noro Hudec, is also at fault here, because all the scenes of Ela having sex are shot from behind her partner, which obscures her face and leaves us with absolute no idea what she is thinking or feeling, thereby making her more of an object than a human participant.

Ela is generally so unpleasant we actually root for her to have an abortion out of fear that the world would be polluted with another one like her in it. Her cantankerousness isn’t helped by the fact scenes don’t evolve but are rather shown as dots that we simply cannot connect in a smooth way. The film is filled with impressions, mostly just showing Ela’s unsmiling face, that do not present us with a complete character.

At one point, Ela gets out of her mother’s car in a huff and storms down the highway. Instead of showing us what happens when her mother catches up to her, there is a cut to a later scene that suggests she didn’t see her mother again, which is difficult to believe.

Miracle is a badly executed product that, even at a short running time of 78 minutes, feels like a mess the characters have got themselves stuck in and cannot escape. The only miracle here is that the film was made at all.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

Hany (2014)

With almost no editing, young Czech director’s first film depicts the spectacular tumult of a night out in Plzeň.

hanyCzech Republic
4*

Director:
Michal Samir

Screenwriter:
Michal Samir

Director of Photography:
Martin Žiaran

Running time: 85 minutes

James Joyce had Dublin, Richard Linklater had Paris, and Michal Samir has Plzeň.

Each deploying their respective, considerable talents, these three storytellers used the space of a city that already existed to let their tales play out in real time: Joyce in the “Wandering Rocks” chapter of his Ulysses, Linklater in Before Sunset and Samir in Hany, which is somewhat of a technical watermark in filmmaking. Samir may not have the experience of either of the other two, but the risk he took with this project has paid off handsomely and provided the movie-going public with a work that is equal parts funny, jaw-dropping, shocking, gentle and raw.

When people talk about this particular film, however, the first thing they discuss very likely won’t be the identity of the space, but rather how the camera moves around inside it. That is because Hany is that rare breed of film that was shot almost entirely in a single take, without any visible cuts. The film consists of one long take lasting most of the film, before a short epilogue (once again, shot in a single take) that occurs a little later in time.

In 2002, Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (Russkij Kovcheg) focused the art film world’s attention on the use of the long take in the cinema today, and his ballroom scene in particular remains a remarkable demonstration of one director’s ability to control dozens of actors and camera movements simultaneously. But the film was filled with vignettes separated from each other as the halls of Saint Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum were divided by walls, doors and corridors.

Hany moves into a different territory – to which the long takes of Soy Cuba, Boogie Nights and Kill Bill belong – where the camera is not limited by space and can move freely into and out of buildings and even up and down along the vertical axis. It is important to note, however, that the camera never completely frees itself from its terrestrial shackles (by contrast, think of that beautiful shot in Mathieu Kassovitz’s la Haine when the camera flies out through an open window over a public housing development), and the crane shots deliberately do not convey a sense of freedom but rather a brief sensation of release.

The “single take” actually comprises three separate takes, shot on three consecutive nights and imperceptibly stitched together; one would guess the stitches occur when the horizontal and vertical axes change, but these transitions are all but impossible to detect.

But even before we notice the long take, there is a moment early on that catches our attention. The film opens at 10 p.m. inside a bar (we don’t see the name, but it’s the Anděl Café and Music Bar on Plzeň’s Bezručova Street). A poet named Egon Alter is about to start a one-man reading of his latest play. Next to him, his friend Dušan sits beside a chess board. The camera slowly pulls back and eventually tracks back and makes a 360-degree turn to show us the entire bar and its band of revelers. Such panoramic shots, which seem to reveal there is no one standing behind the camera directing the action or holding a boom, support our belief that this is all happening “for real”. A shot like that is rare, and when it happens, the audience had better sit up and take notice.

The black and white pieces on the chess board in that opening shot suggest the tension between the darkness and the light that pervades the film in many ways and comes to a head during one of the final scenes, taking place at main character Jiří’s flat, in which the darkness is lit up by lasers in the colors of the rainbow.

Jiří is a guy in his 20s who sells drugs in a back room of the bar and has no problem provoking those around him. For most of the first part of the film, he is in the company of Míla, Hana, Hanka and Zuzana. By the end of the film, he will have alienated some of his friends, but we will have learned a little about him in a way that is wholly credible and far from contrived.

The scant knowledge we gain has to do with one of the themes that underlie the narrative in a way that is nearly cloaked from our sight by the events of the film. That theme is family, and although it doesn’t seem to influence Jiří or Egon directly, a few small moments clue us in to the depth of their characters. Egon, who remains in the background almost throughout, suddenly takes center stage toward the end, when his storyline unexpectedly delivers the most poignant scene of the entire film.

The image of moths drawn to a flame – which the camera also seems to embody as it floats between its sources of light, the characters – is presented to us early on, when we leave the bar for the first time, and it starts to become clear the camera will really be travelling around the city in a seemingly unbroken take. There are almost as many moths circling the lights on the street as there are characters with speaking parts, and Samir accomplishes something of a Robert Altman effect by sometimes having people talk over each other. While this is going on in the foreground, more things are happening in the background, adding to an impression of richness that is unusual in the cinema but that ought to be a prime concern for the works that want to reflect reality in all its glorious messiness.

For all the movement and spectacle, especially towards the end, it is the opening and – in retrospect – relatively subdued sequence in the bar that shows Samir’s skill as a director, as he interweaves multiple layers of action to create a shimmering, vibrant atmosphere that is dynamic, authentic, believable and entertaining.

The problem with having so much going on and following so many groups of characters is of course that there is no clear central storyline, and the viewer may struggle to summarise the plot in terms of action rather than space. Despite the occasional impression that the connections between all the pieces elude us, the epilogue delivers a stunning narrative blow as we reassess some of the scenes that came before (including one in a pub that at first seems random) with our newly acquired knowledge.

Not all of our questions are always answered, and at times this uncertainty works to bring about the feeling of ambiguity that André Bazin credited for making films seem realistic. In one scene, a tram from 1954 arrives to pick up two characters on Plzeň’s Square of the Republic and among the passengers, at the side of the frame, we see someone with a scarf covering his mouth. Is this the same man we see a few minutes later striking the first blow against the police, thus ushering in the quick transition to chaos that reigns over the final act?

The quick descent into disorder is preceded by an elegant shot of a man on a bicycle whom we watch while Egon’s rich, melodious voice reverberates in a voice-over on the soundtrack. Egon is one of the film’s many outsiders, which include the naïve and apologetic Míla, the Arab referred to as “Salaam”, and Martin the Slovak, a genuinely nice guy who experiences the malice of a drunken Jiří.

While Jiří is the main character by virtue of making the most noise and the one we see most often, the others are there to offer a mixture of hope for humanity and fear of what may happen to the ones who are weaker than the rest. The director doesn’t take sides, and he doesn’t judge, and while we never laugh directly at anyone, there are many moments that make us laugh out loud at the antics of some of these people. We can nitpick about the empty streets, the acting of a Vietnamese saleswoman who has her merchandise stolen, or a car crash that is not particularly believable, but these are negligible exceptions in a film that is in many respects astounding.

Director of photography Martin Žiaran’s work with the Arri Alexa doesn’t draw unnecessary attention, and Samir’s blocking of his actors is equally laudable because they seem to move freely, even though almost every single movement was planned out in advance. And when the camera floats down the street and the score swells on the soundtrack for the very first time, we cannot help but shiver with wonder.

Hany contributes to the art of filmmaking by immersing us in the world of the film, explicitly situated on the border of fiction and reality but presented in a way that is absolutely thrilling and never dull, even if the riot scene so ominously announced in an opening voiceover is over all too quickly. Whatever the achievements of Russian Ark, it was not a constant thrill.

The film eschews artifice and succeeds in representing a lively night out. In life, things sometimes happen out of the blue, and in that regard perhaps the film’s sudden switch in tone from restraint to anarchy is not all that far-fetched. The dirty, alcohol-soaked and drug-infused final scenes can be difficult to stomach, but the images will stay with you.

Egon refers to his unbroken performance in the bar as a literary night. Samir’s unbroken performance through the streets of Plzeň doesn’t aim to be literary, but despite its thin storyline, his is undeniably one for the books.

Peacock (2015)

Short film about Czech playwright Ladislav Stroupežnický is a period piece like almost no other and has a central character who almost never speaks but evokes passion beyond words.

furiant-peacockCzech Republic
4.5*

Director:
Ondřej Hudeček 

Screenwriters:
Jan Smutný

Ondřej Hudeček
Director of Photography:
Ondřej Hudeček

Running time: 27 minutes

Original title: Furiant

The early years of the 19th-century critical realist Czech playwright Ladislav Stroupežnický are vividly brought to life with a dazzling display of humour and unconventional storytelling in Ondřej Hudeček’s 25-minute short film, Peacock (Furiant). This is the story of a young rebel whose first encounter seemed to have been divinely ordained. And even though the tale also has a tragic component, a warm romanticism that is both affectionate and slightly tongue-in-cheek infuses the presentation of the material.

Borrowing liberally from the visual style of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, as is to be expected in any period film worth its salt, the film has another reference that is even more pertinent in terms of eccentricity and playfulness: Tony Richardson’s 1963 classic Tom Jones, which has become regrettably underseen and underknown. Hudeček’s use of a period setting to tell a story that is every bit as energetic as a music video and filled with painterly landscapes yet almost entirely devoid of dialogue is thrilling, and the film’s glimpse of this famous playwright is as witty as it is educational.

The structure of Peacock, which comprises an introduction, three acts and an epilogue, is just about the only aspect that one might label as traditional, as the contents and the presentation of the material are dynamic. Not only does the film deploy animation, droll title cards and a side-splitting extract from a screenplay, but it even does away with dialogue altogether, replacing it with the coherent, ubiquitous and atmospheric voice-over by Lukáš Hlavica.

Book-ended by gorgeous shots of the interior of Prague’s National Theatre, a magnificent symbol of the Czech National Revival to which Stroupežnický would become an important contributor (many of his plays would also be performed here), the film covers 14 years in the author’s early life, from 1853 to 1867. We follow him on his riotous rejection of authority, especially of the Church, and his first love.

Ironically played by a German and not a Czech actor, the young Stroupežnický (Julius Feldmeier) has a tense face that almost never relaxes, except in the company of Jan Aleš, a close friend whom a title card early on introduces as “a poet and a great lover”. This unexpected meeting between the two is anticipated – even endorsed – in religious terms, as the narrator tells us that “Ladislav, rebelling against the supreme authority, was unaware that he would soon receive a great sign from above.” 

This first love very intelligently marks the end, at least for him, of romanticism. In fact, the film suggests that the disintegration of their intimacy – whose melodrama is rivalled only by the climax, in which Stroupežnický attempts to commit suicide but is seemingly (and rather hilariously) spared by divine intervention – was a turning point for the artist and somehow explains his subsequent conversion to critical realism.

The film uses the music of Antonín Dvořák, one of the most famous Czech composers of all time and a contemporary of Stroupežnický, all the way through, and his series of “Slavonic Dances”, in particular, provides a rich and sometimes thrillingly bombastic frame for the emotions at work in the story.

The Czech title appears to be somewhat ironic, too, as Furiant literally means “show-off”, even though Stroupežnický almost never utters a word. The original meaning refers to the type of movements that accompanied, among others, Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dances”. Clearly, the English title is connected to the first meaning, and the attention paid to the film’s absolutely stunning visuals – especially the exterior scenes, although at least one interior shot also draws attention because of its theatrical composition – is highly commendable and helps to immerse us in the beauty of the story.

Hudeček’s work here is absolutely flawless, and his talent for producing splendid images that knock us with emotional hammer blows, often in complete silence, makes the experience of watching the film all the more intense. Filled with sly humor, bubbling with creativity and assembled as a coherent work of fiction that draws on reality for inspiration, Peacock is as colourful as its English title suggests. 

Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Marguerite (2015)

The story of a woman who sang opera even though she did not have a shred of talent is more enchanting than it sounds.

marguerite-xavier-giannoliFrance/Czech Republic
4*

Director:
Xavier Giannoli

Screenwriters:
Xavier Giannoli

Marcia Romano
Director of Photography:
Glynn Speeckaert

Running time: 130 minutes

In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane’s second wife’s ambition of being an opera singer, despite having a terrible voice, was bankrolled by her rich husband, a newspaper tycoon and heir to a sizable fortune. The reviews were terrible, but their isolation from the rest of society served to protect her from the overwhelmingly negative response from both the public and the critics.

Marguerite, a French-Czech-Belgian co-production, provides French comedy legend Catherine Frot with a similar role – one informed by the real-life story of the wealthy but notoriously out-of-tune opera soprano Florence Foster Jenkins. Frot stars as the titular Marguerite, a French baroness whom we first encounter at a private recital in aid of First World War orphans. She is the only one who fails to recognise her attempt at channelling Mozart’s “Queen of the Night’s Aria” (Der Hölle Rache) from The Magic Flute is so crass it sounds like a cat is being strangled. The high society audience can barely restrain themselves from snickering into their perfumed sleeves.

But while many a newspaper excoriates her performance, one even running the headline “Pauvre Mozart” (Poor Mozart), a single critic, the dashing young Lucien Beaumont, lavishes her with ambiguous praise when he remarks that her voice seemed to want to expel some demon from the room. Of course, Beaumont has an ulterior motive, as we can easily guess when we see his friend, Kyrill, regale a well-to-do woman at the recital with tales of an art gallery he wants to open and inquires about the possibility of an investment.

Set between 1920 and 1921, Marguerite makes seamless transitions across time that become veritable leaps toward the end, as the baroness, with no shortage of instigation by Beaumont, moves toward an unskilled performance on a large public stage. Small moments along the way highlight her most intimate relationships, complicated by the lies people tell to spare her the pain of the truth.

It would be easy to dismiss the central character as a thinly veiled embodiment of anyone surrounded by yes-men and yes-women who merely exacerbate a toxic situation by avoiding the potentially agonising conversation that breaks the truth: This woman cannot sing to save her life.

However, such a view of the film would be overly simplistic, as Marguerite, thanks to Frot, is endearing and close to naïve but does not have a single mean bone in her body. Persistent exposure to her singing may cause some people to pine for hearing loss, but she is not hurting anyone, and telling her she is delusional and sounds worse than a broken bagpipe may wreck her life, which revolves around her love of music.

She has accumulated in excess of 1,400 partitions, some from the great masters of opera, and she seems to know the libretti by heart. But as those in the music industry are astounded to learn, such a deep knowledge of the fifth art does not preclude one from reproducing it with utter ineptitude, albeit with heart and soul.

Frot, however, is in complete control of her portrayal of the musically challenged baroness. Marguerite is serene and focused like a laser on the task at hand: Sharing her love of the opera with those around her. In this task she is loyally assisted by her butler, Madelbos, who has her best interests at heart and, considering the impressive collection of pictures he has taken of her in various poses, likely also yearns for her affection.

Director Xavier Giannoli, who presents his material with a straight face, includes the symbol of the peacock, which we never see displaying the beautiful colours of its feathers but whose screams we do hear at irregular intervals around the house (the sound is not dissimilar from the brief meow of a cat).

All the main parts are admirably depicted, and it is to Giannoli’s credit that this inherent romp is lighthearted but never turns into a circus. Unexpectedly, Marguerite’s climax is both funny and deeply affecting, as a moment of magical realism turns the spectacle into a heartfelt recognition of the purity of Dumont’s desire to be close to her husband and to sing her heart out. The balance here, as elsewhere in the film, is highly commendable.

The 127-minute film never feels like a drag; on the contrary, some characters – like Hazel, a talented young graduate from the conservatory, or the slightly mysterious Madelbos, who likes to take pictures of objects being consumed by fire and leaves an indelible imprint on the viewer – are sorely underdeveloped. Nonetheless, the effortless distinction with which the director and his leading lady present the comedic melodrama of this peculiar individual whom we cannot but pity makes for a very gratifying film.

Family Film (2015)

A family is torn apart, a dog fends for itself, and the director proves his filmmaking chops with an unexpectedly affecting work of dramatic fiction.

family-filmCzech Republic/Slovenia
4*

Director:
Olmo Omerzu 

Screenwriters:
Olmo Omerzu

Nebojša Pop-Tasić
Director of Photography:
Lukáš Milota

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Rodinný film

Following up on his widely hailed début, A Night Too Young (Příliš mladá noc), Slovenian-born FAMU graduate Olmo Omerzu’s sophomore feature – shot once again in his second language – is yet further proof of the young director’s (he turned 30 during production) talent for storytelling: He manages to tackle a theme as serious as the crumbling family unit with a mixture of short, powerful revelations in a snow-swept Prague and lyrical, wordless snippets on a tropical island in the eastern Indian Ocean.

In a deceptively simple but well-chosen opening scene, which takes place inside the family sedan of Igor Kubín, his son and daughter are watching a nature documentary on the television embedded on the back of his headrest. Igor’s wife, Irena, asks him whether he took their sheepdog, a Border Collie named Otto, to get vaccinated. Igor sheepishly admits he forgot. In the meantime on the documentary, a frog unceremoniously meets its end.

Igor and Irena leave for a yachting expedition around Christmas Island and expect everything back home to go well as they will keep in touch with their teenage son, Erik, and his elder sister, Anna, via Skype. But when the cat’s away, the mice will play, and they do so no sooner than on the way back from dropping their parents off at the airport, when they pick up Anna’s friend Kristýna.

Omerzu is cautious to show too much too quickly, and he uses small but striking hints that things are headed south, for example by ending many a scene on a slightly awkward facial expression that firmly indicates the situations are not as innocent as they seem at first. The day after his parents leave, Erik arrives back home to find the doors to the building’s elevator closing shut, and we briefly spot Kristýna, stark-naked, inside.

She later explains to him that she plays this game because she is bored, and before long she turns her sights and her wiles on the naïve Erik, whom his father had playfully advised to enjoy himself in moderation. The calculating Kristýna moves in with Anna and Erik, and even when the children’s uncle Martin eventually turns up, she stays put, sometimes snuggling up next to Erik in bed, at other times stroking his hand or licking his ear.

All the while, there are glimpses of sun-kissed beaches, palm trees and turquoise waters half a world away, where Igor and Irena are blissfully ignoring any possibility their children would get into trouble. It is only when Anna receives an unexpected phone call about her brother’s fortnight-long absence from school that she is compelled to convene a Skype intervention between her, her parents and a teacher from school. Irena wants to go home at once, but Igor insists there is nothing they can do but bide their time.

At first, it is challenging to understand what Omerzu is getting at, or why he wants to tell us this story. But everything changes in the final third, which in formal terms is also by far his most ambitious act, as all the pieces suddenly come together in a stunning contrast of wrenching heartache and serene tranquillity, as revelations about the family structure in Prague play off against scenes of perseverance in a tropical wilderness, with Otto stranded on a deserted island.

Although there is little development in his character, the story of Otto the dog unexpectedly turns out to be one of the most impressive additions to the screenplay. His arrival on the island is a gorgeous example of Omerzu’s talents, as the camera follows the dog slowly swimming ashore, time and time again briefly disappearing from view behind the crest of the wave before re-emerging, snout in the air. The scene will be sure to leave many a viewer breathless, thanks to the visual dynamics we are made witness to.

Other scenes with or around Otto are equally mesmerising, from a palm tree hit by lightning to crabs scurrying surreptitiously behind the dog while it takes shelter from the rain. The film’s final scene is another astonishing triumph, and Omerzu’s decision to let it play out with barely a word of dialogue demonstrates his eye for cinematic intensity.

Family Film is a rich, satisfying experience of a minimalist story line that includes a handful of unforeseen developments, all presented with a firm hand and no desire to shock. The director is in complete control of his material, and while a few characters lack depth or motivation, the last act of the film is a wonderful display of a range of feelings, from passive aggression to love and forgiveness.

Viewed at the 2015 San Sebastián International Film Festival