Part of a suicidal pact that a group of young students had made in opposition to the Soviet invasion, Palach’s extreme gesture became a monument of resistance. Given the opportunistically abused nature of the subject and its potential for melodrama, the risk of inflicting audiences with a gold brick of mellifluous proportions was high. But "Burning Bush" instead veers away from the pseudo-historical fairy tales Hollywood specializes in to deliver a master class in modern historical drama.
The film begins with the self-immolation of Palach only to go on to recount the dauntless struggle of the student movement and a young lawyer to rescue his martyrdom from political manipulation and the oblivion of history. As the newly imposed regime sifts through Prague's university -- Holland was a student herself at the time of the events -- in its impassive quest to quell any form of resistance, history is already being rewritten in the corridors of power. Palach’s mother and her other son decide to sue a functionary of the Communist party who has fabricated an elaborate if implausible lie (involving “cold fire”) regarding the death of the young student.
"Burning Bush" is significant in its choice to depict the party functionary not as your typical studio villain but as a subservient bureaucrat whose sole allegiance is to his own miserable interests. “Truth is whatever is more convenient for the nation to hear,” points out the indicted party member when confronted outside of the courtroom. Far from being some sort of Soviet line, the abovementioned is the kind of rhetoric one wouldn’t be surprised hear uttered from someone like Tony Blair in regard to inexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. For this reason alone the film possesses a universal and lifelike dimension insofar as to how it shows how the struggle for freedom is often bookended by unhappy endings rather than uplifting triumphs. Adhering to an aesthetic and ethical composure that feels both just and brave, "Burning Bush" manages to be genuinely moving without resorting to emotional blackmail.
It's worth noticing that the period the film explores was a crucial watershed in the history of Czech cinema, whose unruly new wave met in the Soviet tanks a most definite breakwater. One of the most creative and insubordinate generations of '60s filmmakers was dispersed by the Soviet invasion, with some emigrating abroad (Milos Forman and Holland herself) and others, like Věra Chytilová, being severely restricted in their domestic activities. "Burning Bush" started broadcasting last week in the Czech Republic and is already a major hit in the country, where social media is apparently teeming with debates about and around the work. After a cinematic year that saw the overwhelming success of present ("Zero Dark Thirty"), recent ("Argo") and distant ("Lincoln") hagiographical "re-enactments," "Burning Bush" offers a precious insight into how history can, and perhaps should, be narrated on screen, whether that screen be small or big.