Karlovy Vary has always been an odd place to categorise. Like many other festivals, it is multi-layered, with three competitions -- one for the world, another, East Of The West, for local features, a third for documentaries -- and at least four more official strands (Horizons, Forum Of Independents, Another View and Open Eyes) alongside the usual out-of-competition slots, tributes, midnight screenings and retrospectives. That's not to mention "Variety's Critics' Choice" selection, an eclectic pick of overlooked independents that willfully blurs genres, this year putting the enjoyable Spanish, Primer-esque thriller "Fermat's Room" alongside the chirpy girls-together road movie "Dunya And Desie" from Belgium.
As a result, KV can seem all over the shop to outsiders, and it's a tough festival to get a handle on. To the media in the Czech Republic, the biggest story so far is Robert De Niro, who came last Friday to receive his lifetime achievement award and present "What Just Happened?," a rather silly choice for an opening film since it's a Hollywood movie in which the scissor-wielding studio suits are the misunderstood good guys and their enemies are headstrong creative artists, who are depicted as vain, pompous and pretentious. Surely this isn't a great message to be sending out at the start of such an ambitious and far-reaching festival, certainly not one that struggled so long on the shadow of Communist oppression?
For the local industry, though, there are two different questions, the first being: where is "The Country Teacher," the new film by rising star Bohdan Slama, director of 2001's local hit "Wild Bees?" The answer is likely to present itself in the coming months, when two significantly higher-profile festivals present their schedules, but in the meantime, to distract them, the second question is quite simply: what took Karuk Jakubisky's "Bathory" so long? And after all that time, why is it so awful? Rumours persist that the film went through around 70 cuts in its two-year gestation, but the edit that had its world premiere here is still a lumpen two hours 20. A stodgy study of the medieval countess accused of bathing in the blood of virgins, it plays like a soft-porn Euro-pudding with unwitting shades of Monty Python.
The film was playing out of competition, which was just as well, but at this point, with two days to go, the winning film is still anyone's guess. Leading the way seems to be "Dr Aleman," from Germany, a buoyant, sort of "Last King Of Scotland"-style seduction-of-evil drama about a medic who gets drawn into the gangster world of Colombia's favellas. Similarly praised was China's "The Shaft" by Zhang Chi, an unexceptional but definitely solid story of life in a remote mining town, and Alexei Uchitel's "Captive," a gritty, Chechen-themed POW drama with, for Russia at least, an unusually toned-down sense of patriotism and even some subversive homoerotic undertones.
However, all eyes will be on the two Czech productions in the selection: "Night Owls," by Michaela Pavlatova and "The Karamazovs," by Petr Zelenka. Pavlatova isn't exactly holding her breath ("To be nominated in the Karlovy Vary Film Festival competition," she says, "this is already the award for me"), but it's probably just as well. Though competent and assured, this story of a woman working in a 24-hour store is more notable for a remarkable performance by former teen star Jiri Madl as her offbeat companion. Equally strong acting features in "The Karamazovs," a filmed-theatre piece in which a famous Prague acting troupe takes over a bleak factory in Poland to perform their acclaimed adaptation of Dostoevszky's classic novel. Like many such projects, it's stylized, literary and hard to be immersed in, but Zelenka certainly has an eye, and a subplot about a bereaved father carries an unexpected power.
In the East Of The West section, a mix of international and world premieres, the quality has been, unfortunately, a little lower. Two films are here from Cannes, but it seems likely that the beautiful Kazakh-set romance "Tulpan" will start its life here, screening in a finished print after its HD debut on the Croisette. Otherwise, it's been a mixed bag. It's hard to be nice about "It's Hard To Be Nice," the story of a petty criminal cab driver, and the less said about the unfathomable crime 'montage' "Tablo" the better. However, Juraj Nvotna's "Music," a quirky Slovak comedy about a jazz musician in the early '80s, proved unexpectedly endearing, although its rock opera for Lenin was an idea left tantalizingly unexplored.
Screening out of competition in a sea of films shown elsewhere (including such unlikely bedfellows as "Mamma Mia!," Nikita Michalkov's "12" and Andrej Wajda's gruelling "Katyn"), Thomas Thurman's "Nick Nolte: No Exit" was a brave but disappointing attempt to catch the actor's lightning in a bottle. It's fun to see the scruffy actor being interviewed by himself, dressed as his smarter alter ego, and Nolte spills some remarkable beans, but the other interviews aren't varied enough and the paucity of clips leaves you wanting more. Weirdly, it wasn't in the documentary competition, which may fall to the festival machine that is James Marsh's wonderful "Man On Wire," but it has a strong rival in the Slovak doc "Blind Loves," from Juraj Lehotsky, a remarkable film about the love-lives of the visually impaired.
As always in KV, there was an excellent chance to catch up with films from other festivals in the Horizons. Another View and Forum Of Independents sections, and it's worth giving a special mention to Ari Gold's "Adventures Of Power," a likeable David-vs-Goliath air-drumming comedy recuperating here after an unfair kicking in Sundance, and Chris Bell's steroid doc "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*," which was simply ignored there. Because in KV, films get a second chance, which means that in the tribute sections there have been some extraordinary revivals. Les Blank, Ivan Passer and Nicolas Roeg all received small but insightful tributes, with Arturo Ripstein's incredible 1972 piece "The Castle Of Purity," in which a frustrated fascist incarcerates his whole family for 18 years and forces them to make rat poison, got an airing on a wonderful print (a rarity at this festival, where the print of Robert Altman's "McCabe And Miller" was shown in a scandalous condition, to an audience including its DoP, Vilmos Szigsmond).
Personally, one of this year's highlights formed part of a mini-tribute to Czech doc-maker Dusan Hanak, namely his extraordinary 1972 film "Pictures Of The Old World," a lovely, B&W portrait of a now long-dead rustic generation who made McCabe And Mrs Miller's frontier townspeople seem positively metropolitan. Part still photography, part film poem, it's a timeless portrait that evokes a bygone time with naturalism and humanity -- paradoxically, the two virtues that caused the Czech government to ban it immediately and prevent the mild-mannered Hanak from working for 15 years. It's films like this that are the true heart and soul of the festival, not the kind of mealy-mouthed Hollywood bullshit that now makes even the thought of "What Just Happened?" such a bad and thankfully distant memory.