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Czech List: The Best Films From The Karlovy Vary Film Festival

Czech List: The Best Films From The Karlovy Vary Film Festival

The 47th edition of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival came to a close this weekend in the famous spa town in Bohemia, in the wooded western part of Czech Republic. The fest’s biggest gong, the Crystal Globe, was awarded to Norwegian competition film “The Almost Man,” from director Martin Lund, one of those rare instances in which the strongest film in the lineup also walked away with the top prize. The international jury was chaired by Richard Peña, the film program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.   

Being an A-list festival, the large event has the burden of having to program premieres for its competitive strand, making the competition rather hit-and-miss and often too dependent on the quality of the available titles in any given year. But since the festival, the biggest film-related gathering in Eastern Europe, presents over 200 films in all, including a separate competition for titles from the former Eastern bloc, called East of the West, and a third competition focused on nonfiction features, there are always new gems to be found.

Here are ten films that premiered at Karlovy Vary this year that festival programmers, distributors, sales agents and cinephiles should be aware of:

“The Firemen’s Ball”
The best Eastern European film to screen at the event was without a doubt the gloriously restored version of Milos Forman’s most famous Czech film, “The Firemen’s Ball.” Made before Forman came to the U.S. because of political reasons (where he would go on to direct Oscar magnets such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus”), this hilarious parable of the communist system and the widespread greed and corruption it generates in full view of the masses was shot in the Czech countryside with local, nonprofessional actors. It was banned upon release by the authorities, though French film lovers Francois Truffaut and Claude Berri took the film abroad, where it was shown to great acclaim. Now digitally restored by a new fund of which the Karlovy Vary fest is also part, the film was shown in Vary with a new documentary short about the making of the tragicomedy that will no-doubt find its way onto the bonus disc of any new DVD release. The spotless restoration, however, must be seen on the big screen to really appreciate the beautiful work of renowned cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček (he would go on to shoot films such as “Silkwood;” “The World According to Garp” and “Amadeus”).  

“Dom – A Russian Family”
Part complex Russian family drama set on the beautiful steppes, part protracted and ultraviolent showdown that tries to outdo Tarantino at his most self-indulgent, director Oleg Pogodon’s “Dom – A Russian Family” is that rare hybrid of a film that could appeal to lovers of 19th century Russian literature and genre buffs who love to see stuff being blown up real good. In the tradition of the Western, it starts with the arrival of a son at the isolated mansion of a large extended family. He has been in jail for years and is happy to be reunited with his loved ones, though his next-of-kin have all sorts of unresolved issues with him, not least the fact he’s arrived with a coterie of heavily armed men in impeccable black suits and white shirts on his tail and that the latter group can’t wait to kill him and don’t at all mind shooting any family member who seems to be getting in the way of their goal. The first half of the film, which dissects family attitudes and its complex history, offers a microcosm of Russian society and the Russian soul, while the extremely violent second part is a protracted shootout staged in a balletic, visually sumptuous way that turns all the bloodshed into a mesmerizing, almost abstractly beautiful spectacle.

“The Almost Man”
The winner of the fest’s Crystal Globe for best film as well a shared Best Actor prize for lead Henrik Rafaelsen (recently seen in the Norwegian hit tragicomedy “Happy Happy”), “The Almost Man” chronicles not only the arrested development of a Norwegian man in his early thirties but explores a complicated concept that’s hard to visualize: why do we something do things we can’t rationally explain?  Taking the opposite route of Judd Apatow and his cohorts, the film is a finely staged and exquisitely observed drama, flecked with moments of dark humor, that follows the titular protag, Henrik (Rafaelsen) as he and his girlfriend move into a new home, Henrik starts a new job and tries to behave like an adult at parties, though he’d much rather be out drinking with his highschool buddies. Though a little bit heavy-handed in one sequence – in which Henrik pisses all over an illustrated book of Peter Pan; yes, he doesn’t want to grow up either, we get it – the film is otherwise an artfully restrained look at the slow road to adulthood that trusts the audience enough to let it make its own connections and draw its own conclusions.

The other standout in the competition was the fourth film of French-Canadian director Rafael Ouellet, “Camion,” a restrained family drama about two sons who travel back to their widower father’s rural home after the old man, who’s not far off from retirement age, has had a serious road accident while driving the titular truck. Though the accident wasn’t the truck driver’s fault, it killed someone and the man is visibly shaken by the events and wonders what there’s left for him to live for. His two sons, a Montreal janitor and a bum who’s been hiding out in New Brunswick on insurance money, are clearly not that close to their father but take it upon themselves to keep the man company and shake him out his lethargy. Finely observed and well-acted, this unassuming drama, in a mixture of French and English, hits all the right notes.

“Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy”
The latest film of Italian director Marco Tulio Giordana, whose epic “The Best of Youth” remains a favorite of many cinephiles, is “Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy.” Again a historical drama, this film looks at the Piazza Fontana bombing of 1969, which killed 17 and left 88 people injured. Again written by historical fresco-specialists Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli (“Best of Youth,” “Crime Novel,” “My Brother is an Only Child”) this is another incredibly dense drama that explores a dark episode in recent Italian history that might perhaps not entirely make sense for those unfamiliar with the period but which nonetheless impresses with its veracity and sheer filmmaking verve (another recent Italian arthouse hit, “Il Divo,” also contained many specifics that probably went way over the head of international audiences and that film did quite well nonetheless). Comic Valerio Mastandrea, as the police inspector charged with the investigation, anchors the film with a solid turn in a very serious role.

“What Is This Film Called Love?”
Unclassifiable is probably the best word to describe “What Is This Film Called Love?” a film essay sketch that viewers will either love or hate. After the 15-hour documentary “The Story of Film,” which is still making the festival rounds, Scotland-based film critic and director Mark Cousins decided to make a film that would not require six years of preparation and production. Instead, while on a stopover in Mexico City for three days with nothing planned, he takes a Flip camera and a laminated photo of his hero, the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, and takes to the streets of the sprawling city, reflecting out loud about the things he encounters and talking to Eisenstein as if he were his travel companion (his “amigo” actually visited the city some 80 years earlier). Not coherent by any stretch of the imagination, it is instead a stream-of-consciousness of musings on film, art and life and how these are or might be connected. Pretentious or deep, or maybe both, this is indeed an unclassifiable piece of work that should get discussions going at any festival at which it’ll screen.

Every festival worth its salt needs at least one film scandale and this year’s pick for that slot in Karlovy Vary is probably “Shameless,” a Polish East of the West entry that combines Jewish themes, Neo-Nazis and brother-sister incest. The feature debut of director Filip Marczewski (an Oscar nominee for one of his shorts) sketches the lives of a teenage brother (rising Polish star Mateusz Kościukiewicz, from Sundance title “All that I Love”) and his older sister (the luminous Agnieszka Grochowska, “In Darkness”) over the course of the male sibling’s eventful summer holiday, which he has planned to spend with his sister despite the fact she has a sleazy live-in boyfriend who is much older than either of them. Though it explores some complicated and dark themes, the film, written by Grzegorz Łoszewski, remains surprisingly light of touch for most of its duration, with a tone generally closer to familial melodrama than full-on tragedy. Even the unavoidable sex scenes are tastefully filmed, so the biggest shock of all, seen what the film is actually portraying, is how tame it all feels.

“She Male Snails”
A visual tone poem, a mood piece and an entrancing mix of documentary and dream-like fiction, the semi-experimental “She Male Snails” was, somewhat surprisingly, originally shot for Swedish television. A portrait of transgendered artist Eli Leven in which transgendered director Ester Martin Bergsmark has inserted herself, the film explores the lives and friendship of both and their shared dream world, in which a boy who feels like a girl dreams up a third gender in order to cope with the world. Using bold colors and sound, the film is first and foremost an ode to life and individuality that survives and stays strong not despite but exactly because of the drab and dull surrounding universe.  

“Beyond the Hill”
Not to be confused with Cristian Mungiu’s Romanian drama with a similar title, “Beyond the Hill” is the impressive feature debut by Turkish Emin Alper, which inscribes itself in the slow-moving, observant tradition of Turkish cinema that’s currently en vogue and in which the landscape is an extension of the psychology of the characters. Set on a rural estate of an elderly farmer who has invited his grown-up son and the latter’s teenage boys, Alper’s film, which first premiered in Berlin and also played Tribeca, expertly uses the titular offscreen space to explore scapegoat mechanisms in Turkish society. The use of occasional point-of-view shots that are unwittingly (for the viewer) inserted in the flow of the story add a further layer of visual sophistication.

“Our Children”
Belgian director Joachim Lafosse is probably the most talented French-language filmmaker to emerge from the country since the Dardenne brothers. His fifth feature, “Our Children,” was inspired by a true case of a mother who suffocated so much in her marriage that she killed her own children. The film, which premiered in the Un certain regard section at Cannes, was one of the most talked about films at that festival. Its presence at Karlovy Vary further reinforced the impression it’s on its way to a long and healthy fest and arthouse future. Starring the Dardennes’ Rosetta, Emilie Dequenne, in a tour-de-force performance as the mother, and reteaming the actors of Audiard’s “A Prophet,” Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup, as the husband and the couple’s sugar daddy, respectively, Lafosse’s masterful film accumulates enough quotidian but nonetheless telling detail to make audiences understand – if not condone – what the mother does. The claustrophobic visuals, always partly out of focus, further add to the atmosphere of oppression. They suggest at once that someone is spying on the proceedings, perhaps half hidden behind a doorway, and that real privacy doesn’t exist, while also visualising what could be described as the mother’s blind spot in her brain – the place where she goes when she commits the unspeakable act on her own offspring.


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