Karlovy Vary Film Festival
Demetrios Matheou

(The Guardian)

Film festivals are relied upon to raise the difficult issues that mainstream cinema frequently fails to address. And the Karlovy Vary programmers cannot be faulted for the topicality or social conscience evident in this year’s competition selection, with plenty to ensure that the picturesque spa town did not become too comfortable for its cinephile visitors.

However, too many films this year lacked the cinematic intelligence to do justice to their subject matter. The result was a sometimes painful reminder that however good a story, it’s useless without a compelling idea of how to tell it.

The Wolf From Royal Vineyard Street was the last film made by the late Czech director Jan Němec, loosely based on his autobiographical short stories, and offered a tongue-in-cheek account of a topsy-turvy career blighted by authoritarian interference and personal foibles.

Němec died in March this year, the film being completed and presented by his collaborators to an audience that enthusiastically embraced a testament to one of the Czech New Wave’s most significant characters. Sadly, sentimentality obscured the fact that the film is horrible – self-indulgent, amateur, and indigestible for anyone other than Němec aficionados.

 

There’s no doubt that the director made the film he wanted, with a guerrilla style (shot fast and cheap) and imbued with his sense of anti-establishment mischief. But intention doesn’t justify the result, which feels more like an extended in-joke and film festival travelogue, than film history or a document of a life. Němec’s story is worth telling but, ironically, he wasn’t the right person to do it.

Another film that felt self-indulgent was By the Rails, by the Romanian Cătălin Mitulescu. It does have a promising premise: a man returns home, after a year working abroad, and finds that his wife has become a virtual stranger who wants nothing to do with him; during a long, eventful night, he navigates what remains of their relationship. If only Mitulescu had allowed this idea to breath, through a well-developed script and by encouraging full-blooded performances. He does neither.

The film has three phases – the journey home, arrival, and an all-night wedding party – neither of which informs the others. Initially it plays as the worst kind of slow cinema, with long silences mistaken for enigma, before the wedding introduces a dramatic switch in tone; with its lively gypsy music and anarchic behaviour, it reminded me of Kusturica, though without any of that director’s provocative subtext. The characters have virtually no depth, and the actors no rapport. All in all, it was an infuriating experience.

The most topical film was The Confessions, by the Italian Roberto Andò. The setting is a luxury hotel on the Baltic coast, where G8 ministers have been invited by the head of the International Monetary Fund, to sign off on a secret economic package that they know will have a malign impact on the global economy.

To give their event a media-friendly façade, the IMF has also invited a famous musician, a children’s book author and, most surprisingly, a Carthusian monk (Toni Servillo). But the move backfires. When one of the financiers is found dead, creating paranoia in the others, the monk begins to prick their consciences in the hope of averting financial disaster.

 

Andò has tapped into everyone’s distrust of and distaste for bankers and politicians, to create a moderately enjoyable “what if” satire, fuelled by a subtle, sly performance by the inestimable Servillo. Unfortunately, the star is not matched by those around him. Mannered acting, in stilted English, gives this the feel of a “Euro-pudding” – bland, artificial and, ultimately, without very much bite.

The casting of Servillo, along with the gorgeous setting and a certain élan to the camerawork bring to mind the work of another Italian director, Paulo Sorrentino, only to underline how far short this film is from the rigorous intelligence of, say, Il Divo.

There is also a strong economic element to the Turkish drama My Father’s Wings. The focus is a 55-year-old construction worker, Ibrahim, who learns that he is dying of cancer. Forced by financial need to continue working, he hides his condition from his family, who are living with relatives and waiting for him to send money for a home of their own. On the construction site, the project’s bosses show little interest in either paying their employees or ensuring their safety.

 

Director Kivanç Sezer has the beginnings of a worthwhile social drama. The problem is that he doesn’t know when to stop. Inevitably, there is an accidental death on the building site. But there are also allusions to Earthquake victims, the oppression of the Kurds, poverty and hopelessness, with suicide on the menu and innumerable close-ups of  Ibrahim’s suffering face – just in case we’re missing the point. Ironically, for such a heavy-handed film, the ending is abrupt and without pathos.

There is a moment in the Slovenian drama Nightlife, when a character bitterly observes that “People are more vicious than dogs”. The line epitomises another societal critique that is unequivocally pessimistic.

Late at night, the naked body of a well-known defence lawyer is found in the middle of a Ljubljana street. Inexplicably, the man has been mauled by dogs. Next to his body is a sex toy. As he fights for his life in hospital, his wife tries to conceal this evidence and the implications that could destroy her husband’s reputation.

 

Damjan Kozole, who won the best director award, based his drama on a real-life political scandal. He creates a palpably oppressive atmosphere, conveying the sense that in these drab, institutional corridors, in the dead of night, futures hang in the balance. However, as powerful as his source material is, I wish he had taken a different course with it. By showing only the wife’s actions – her efforts to avoid a scandal – Kozole and co-writer Ognjen Sviličić deny us any knowledge of her feelings or knowledge about her husband’s seemingly secret life, and therefore an arguably richer vein of psychological drama. Thus denied, the film is slowly denuded of its force.

For me, a quartet of films brought more satisfying combinations of ambition and flair to their narratives.

Zoology is directed by the Russian Ivan Tverdovskiy, who won the East of the West prize here, two years ago, with his debut feature Corrections Class. That film dealt with young people with disabilities; this one concerns a middle-aged woman with a tail. The underlying themes are the same: the pain of being different in a rigidly conformist society.

Natasha is a lonely, socially awkward woman, still living with her mother, bullied and humiliated by colleagues at the zoo where she works. Natasha’s response to growing a tail is stoic, and she pragmatically takes herself to hospital for an examination. Her problem appears to have a silver lining when she meets the radiologist and experiences a long overdo sexual awakening.

 

Tverdovskiy is looking for the best of both worlds: to make some critical observations about contemporary Russia, and to have some fun. Thus, Natasha’s hospital treatment is hopelessly inept, but does allow her to flirt with the radiologist; and she gets her revenge on superstitious town gossips by telling them dark stories that comically fuel their fears. At other moments, the sadness of her experience is powerfully expressed, particularly when she is rejected by her mother, a religious zealot.

The film does feel under-developed, with scenes cut short before they are able to have an impact, and certain themes unresolved, such as the office bullying. But Tverdovskiy has an original vision, and his bizarre fable is very enjoyable. Zoology won the special jury prize.

A Czech/Slovak co-production, The Teacher is set during the normalisation period in Czechoslovakia and is a well-crafted and engaging way of portraying the subtle, day-to-day psychological oppression that affected so many elements of life under communism.

The action takes place in a school in the early 1980s. A new teacher, Mrs Drazdechova, teaches Russian, Slovak and history; more importantly, she’s the chairwoman of the Communist Party’s school branch. So when she starts to ask “favours” of  her pupils’ parents – help with her groceries and the cleaning and maintenance of her home, taxi rides, even hairdressing, all without payment – most don’t dare to say no. If a parent does refuse, their child’s grades suffer dramatically.

 

The film opens with a parents meeting, a year or so into Mrs Drazdechova’s reign, which has been arranged by the school’s laudable head teacher to deal with the problem. From here, it is constructed as a series of flashbacks, as each of the maligned parents tells their story. It slowly develops some of the flavour of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, as the minority tries to persuade the majority to have the courage to defy the communists.

The most impressive achievement of director Jan Hřebejk and writer Petr Jarchovský is to create a believable scenario in which harassment can take the guise of the seemingly innocuous (the request for favours), but is backed by an innate, insidious threat. Like the school itself, the surface of the film is often bright, even jaunty, but beneath the surface it carries a great deal of anger.

The period is nicely evoked, particularly in the production design (a lot of geometric wallpaper and beige). And Zuzana Mauréry, who won the best actress prize, is appropriately outrageous as the corrupt, vindictive, but always smiling monster.

The winner of the festival’s Crystal Globe for best film was It’s Not the Time of My Life by the Hungarian writer and director Szabolcs Hajdu, who also won the best actor prize himself. It’s fair to call his impeccably constructed drama a ‘family affair’: it features Hajdu’s wife, Orsolya Török-Illyés and their children, its crew consisted of his students, and apparently many of its themes have been discussed in his own home. Nevertheless, the result feels universal.

The scenario is simplicity itself, as we observe two very different families over the course of a single day, during which time troubled histories and personal problems are confronted.

 

Husband and wife Farkas and Eszter (Hajdu and Török-Illyés) live with their five-year-old son in a spacious Budapest apartment. Their relationship is tense, particularly because of their different attitudes to parenthood. Eszter’s sister Ernella, her husband Albert and teenage daughter arrive unexpectedly in the middle of the night, having returned to Hungary from a failed attempt to live in Scotland, and in need of a temporary home.

The two couples could not be more different: the hosts are intellectual, confident, comfortable in their home, their guests less cultured, needy, and bitter. Hajdu’s script skilfully offers a feast of conflicts – between husbands and wives, between sisters, between the men, even between the children – in an emotional stew that constantly threatens to boil over.

Considering his previous films, particularly White Palms, Hajdu was justifiably one of the most feted of the directors in competition. The manipulation of narrative and actors within a highly defined interior is one hallmark of the consummate director, whether it’s Tarkovsky or Bertolucci, Polanski or Ceylan; and here, Hajdu is completely in control of his mise en scene. In fact, It’s Not the Time of My Life reminds me of Polanski’s Carnage. The human dynamics are less enjoyably fluid, or funny, but the skill around the physical space, using handheld cameras, is equally impressive; one sequence, in which Farkas searches the apartment for his lost son, is so superbly orchestrated that it elicits a desire to jump into the flat and help.

The other outstanding film of the festival, and the winner of the Fipresci Prize, was the German adaptation of the Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy’s Original Bliss. More than any director in competition, Sven Taddicken matches thought-provoking themes with perfect execution. This deals with such subjects as the loss of religious faith, domestic abuse, sexual addition and pornography, yet it dares to be both funny and romantic, and succeeds. It is a film of constant surprises.

A suburban housewife, Helene (Martina Gedeck), is existing in a kind of limbo: her marriage is childless and loveless, and this once devout woman now feels deserted by God. Her husband’s response to her inertia is intolerant, and sometimes violent. So when Helene discovers the work of a popular psychologist, Eduard Gluck (Ulrich Tukur), she travels to a conference in Hamburg to seek his help. What ensues is an unexpected, touching attraction between the two, which is threatened by the revelation that Gluck has his own, far more perverse problems.

Taddicken has commented that his previous features Getting My Brother Laid and Emma’s Bliss deal with the question “do we deserve love?” Original Bliss ask the same question, but also the reverse: how far can one push one’s sense of morality, decency and personal comfort to accept someone else’s love?

 

Every aspect of the filmmaking is designed to disorientate us: the nimble, witty script, which even allows moments of romantic comedy; the nuanced performances (Gedeck brilliantly maintaining a Sphinx-like visage, Tukur a gleaming-eyed playfulness); the elegance of the camerawork and production design, which seem counter-intuitive given the frequent bleakness of the story. Marshalling all these resources, Taddicken has created a film that is morally complex and highly distinctive.