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.