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Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2015: Home Care, The Red Spider, The Measure of a Man, & More

As the festival celebrates its 50th year, it continues to be a major showcase for Central and Eastern European cinema.

Oleg Ivanov

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Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2015: Home Care, The Red Spider, The Measure of a Man, & More
Photo: Kino Lorber

As the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival celebrates its 50th year, it continues to be a major showcase for Central and Eastern European cinema, as it has been ever since its days as the premier film festival of the socialist world during the Cold War period. From 1959 to 1993, the Czech spa town alternated yearly with Moscow as the site of the most important film festival behind the Iron Curtain, and since then has become the foremost annual destination to see new cinema in Central Europe. Throughout, it’s shown some of the best cinema that the Czech Republic and its Eastern neighbors have had to offer, as well as both big budget and independent works from Western Europe and the Americas. This year’s selections included ribald comedies from the Czech Republic, documentaries and fictional works both whimsical and dark about Eastern Europe’s recent history, and films from the West that have garnered praise and awards elsewhere on the festival circuit. As it was in its heyday in the 1960s, the festival remains an exciting site of cinematic exchange between Eastern Europe and the Western world at a time of mounting economic and political conflict between the two.

One of the festival’s most buzzworthy premieres was Home Care, a crowd-pleasing Czech comedy that appears to be the likely candidate this year for the nation’s submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Writer-director Slávek Horák’s first feature film, it follows the selfless home-care nurse Vlasta (Alena Mihulová) as she comes to terms with her approaching death after being diagnosed with cancer. Left for dead by the healthcare system to which she has dedicated her life, Vlasta instead turns to new-age spirituality and alternative medicine, though Horák never allows the film to take a definite stance, either politically or scientifically, on these opposing methods. Traditional medicine, associated in the film with common sense and bourgeois morality, is represented by male doctors and Vlasta’s curmudgeonly husband, Láďa (Bolek Polívka), while the other side is embodied by female gurus who may or may not possess the mystical powers they lay claim to.

Much of the film’s comedy stems from Vlasta’s discomfort in the world of the latter, presenting a conservative skepticism on the filmmaker’s part that remains content to poke fun at both sides without delving deeper into the political and socioeconomic consequences of the issues raised in the story, such as the state’s dwindling healthcare resources, the disconnect between the communal values of the Cold War generation and self-centeredness of their post-communist heirs, and the sexism that continues to inform social and professional roles in the country. A film steeped in uniquely Czech social mores and experiences, it provoked huge laughs at the premiere, though the humor might not translate as well in a foreign setting. Mihulová won the Best Actress Award at the festival for her performance, though Polívka’s performance is just as rich. Their scenes together are the best in the film, largely making up for the plot’s limp agnosticism.

Another tremendously popular Czech comedy at the festival was Photographer, a mischievous biopic about Jan Saudek, the Czech Republic’s most famous photographer and bon vivant. Saudek himself co-wrote the script and even appears in the prologue to playfully warn the audience that the movie is more entertaining than the events that inspired it. This meta moment sets the stage for a riotously self-indulgent work, where Saudek (Karel Roden) demolishes his enemies (mainly critics and ex-lovers) while presenting himself as an outrageous genius constantly stifled by his society’s retrograde political, social, and sexual attitudes. A sui generis artist with a Rabelaisian libido, Saudek seduces and photographs women of all shapes, ages, and sizes, though his Dionysian revels come under constant threat throughout, first from the communist authorities and then from possessive wives and lovers after the Velvet Revolution. This vision of la vie boheme in modern Bohemia is tempered by tragic moments from the life of the artist, a Holocaust survivor and political prisoner under the communists, which makes the film’s passionate celebration of erotic freedom and nonconformity all the more potent. With its sumptuous cinematography and constant stream of Rubenesque nudes, this earthy tragicomedy directed and co-written by Irena Pavlásková is firmly in the grand tradition of the bawdy political comedies of the Czech New Wave.

Two of the most beautifully lensed films in the festival came from Ukraine and deal with important elements of that nation’s cultural history that have either already vanished or are on the verge of doing so. Song of Songs, written and directed by Eva Neymann and based on a story by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, received a Special Jury Mention at the festival for its moving depiction of life in a Jewish shtetl at the beginning of the twentieth century. The work’s painterly cinematography, echoing the surreal landscape paintings of Marc Chagall, accentuates the fairy-tale romance at the film’s center, concerning a young doctor that returns to his village to woo his childhood sweetheart after a prolonged absence. The old-world setting is also poignantly a lost world, one where farm animals and Talmudic scholars co-exist in the same rooms and courtyards in nearly mythic harmony.

While there are whispers and passing comments about distant pogroms in the background, the film fully embodies its pre-Holocaust setting, one that radiates hope and an almost utopian faith in the continued existence of this community. The longing of the film’s two lovers for one another combines the mythical and the mystical to create a timeless romance that fits the title, one that represents romantic yearning as much as nostalgia for this vanished yet vividly remembered world. This is a kabbalist love story set in a pre-modern world where mysticism, science, folklore and religion co-exist, and its optimism conceals a deeper grief over the Jewish community’s disappearance from the nation’s cultural landscape.

The documentary The Living Fire, masterfully directed by Ostap Kostyuk, tells of a contemporary Ukrainian community and way of life that has existed for hundreds of years, but now appears to be nearing its obsolescence. It follows a group of shepherds in the Carpathian Mountains as they take a vast flock of sheep on their yearly trip into the highlands to graze. Once practiced throughout the entire region, there’s now just a handful of men in one small area that continue to uphold this tradition. The waning of this practice is vividly embodied in the different generations of shepherds encountered in the film. Octogenarian Ivan spends the film reminiscing about his youth during the heyday of the profession, speaking in almost feral terms of the way the mountains once called him away from his wife and children, a passion he regrets now that he is a widower. Middle-aged Vasyl is now the head shepherd in the community, and footage of him milking his cows at dawn and walking with his sheep on high mountain ridges reveal an ancient way of life in its twilight, with him possibly being its last great practitioner. Meanwhile, his godson, Ivanko, excels at school, something the other two never did, and often seems less than enthusiastic about the hard work the lifestyle entails. But the film captures a deeper mystery that unites these three figures into a cosmic whole, as majestic shots of embers from early morning fires disappearing across the sky like fireflies reveal these figures’ profound connections with their surrounding world, whose secrets the film captures in their vanishing.

Like Ida, The Red Spider is a Polish work set in the 1960s that explores the private violence that belied the authoritarian order of the nation’s communist regime. The film’s immaculate art design recreates the severity of the period’s communist décor in lavish detail, revealing an underlying nostalgia for the material culture of the era that seems to imbue contemporary Poland. Unfortunately, the spectacularly dour setting and lushly muted wardrobe fails to compensate for the work’s thinly sketched characters.

The plot concerns a callow youth named Karol who becomes obsessed with a series of unsolved child murders in Krakow and goes in search of the killer. Unsatisfied with local fame as the city’s best diver, it soon becomes evident that Karol’s search for the killer is a way for him to gain national notoriety and/or pursue a fearless death, as revealed by his admiration for a blindfolded stunt motorcyclist he sees perform at a local fair. Hinting at possible psychological motives, such as latent homosexuality for Karol and humiliation at not having any children for the middle-aged killer, the film plays like a Hardy Boys mystery that takes a darker turn halfway through the plot.

The work never entirely convinces as a crime procedural, especially as the police are noticeably absent until the last third of the film, though it works well as a coming-of-age story about growing up under a regime that governed through both overt and psychological violence. Directed by former cameraman Marcin Koszałka, the film displays a Hitchcockian interest in the related mechanics of murder and photography, linking the two explicitly in Karol’s brief, macabre romance with a photographic journalist. An allegory of the general disengagement of civil society under communism, where everyone is implicated in the official violence of the regime, the film’s sustained sense of dread and masterful art design largely make up for its shallow characters.

The High Sun, a Yugoslavian film that won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize this year at Cannes, similarly traces the way government violence warps the lives and outlooks of its citizens. Written and directed by Dalibor Matanić, it tells three unrelated stories set during different years in post-communist Yugoslavia to examine how the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s effected average people in the region. Each story involves a romantic conflict engendered by the wars as experienced by different couples, who are played by the same actors throughout the film. Though it attempts to portray the tragedy and devastation unleashed by the wars in indirect ways, the work too often devolves into extended scenes of shrill hysteria and unremittent screaming that try to pass themselves off as instances of grief-induced catharsis, but such moments mostly feel hollow.

The film’s lush cinematography of sun-dappled mountains and coastlines can’t fully compensate for its undeveloped characters and banal writing. And while Goran Marković and Nives Ivanković are excellent as the male love interest and the mother, respectively, Tihana Lazović’s strident performance as the female love interest distracts from the story’s exploration of loss and grief. A quieter and more nuanced performance from her would have greatly helped the film achieve the sublimity and emotional release it aims for throughout.

Among many Western European films shown at the festival, one standout was the neorealist The Measure of a Man, directed and co-written by Stéphane Brizé. The plot concerns middle-aged Thierry (Vincent Lindon), an unemployed worker whose skills have been rendered obsolete by technological advances in his field. He eventually finds work as a security guard at a major supermarket chain, where he witnesses the petty humiliations imposed upon the shoplifters and his fellow employees by the company’s faceless management. Lindon gives a devastating performance in the lead role, for which he deservedly won the Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes. His weathered face captures all of the nuances of his character’s disgraced masculinity, as Thierry perfectly embodies the struggles of the lower-middle class as a man whose life is controlled by economic forces beyond his control. Yet Brizé complicates the film’s political message by subtle hints of Thierry’s personal flaws and their effects on his life, as when he refuses both to join a class-action lawsuit against his former company and negotiate the price of his mobile home when he tries to sell it for some desperately need cash. Like a Brechtian learning play, the film works as a cry of quiet despair from the age of late capitalism by showing its politics rather than telling them.

Embrace of the Serpent, another award winner at Cannes, is a Latin American work in the truest sense. Funded by multiple nations on the continent, it uses a plethora of the region’s languages to depict the effect of European colonialism on the wildlife, landscape, and people of the Amazon at the beginning of the 20th century. Directed and co-written by Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra, the film’s plot concerns two German scientists separated by a generation that head deep into the Amazon in pursuit of scientific knowledge and find something rarer, more ephemeral, and ultimately more dangerous. Their separate journeys of discovery are connected by a native shaman, the last surviving member of his tribe, who guides the two Europeans into the jungle ostensibly in search of a rare flower. The second voyage is a re-creation of the first, which ended with the European’s death, though his book made it to Europe to entice others to follow in his footsteps.

Both voyages take the viewer deep into the heart of darkness of the European colonization of the Amazon, where rubber plantations and Christian missions devour the bodies, souls, memories, languages, and cultures of the native population. Like Werner Herzog’s films about Europeans losing their sanity in the jungles of South America, the spiritual and economic interventions of this film’s Europeans among the natives unleash the insanity and cruelty that lie at the heart of colonialism, eventually consuming them completely and turning them into what the guide refers to as “the worst of both worlds.” As science and civilization give way to idolatry, cannibalism, torture, and unbridled destruction of the land and its inhabitants, the work argues that Latin American colonialism was a kind of apocalypse, and that the region’s current population is living in its aftermath.

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival ran from July 3 to July 11.

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