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Review: Agnieszka Holland’s Moving Epic ‘Burning Bush’ Depicts a World Aflame

Review: Agnieszka Holland's Moving Epic 'Burning Bush' Depicts a World Aflame

Before HBO Europe came along and turned “Burning Bush” into its highest profile production, the idea for the miniseries was turned down by Czech television. Written by neophyte screenwriter Štěpán Hulík and directed by the Czech-educated Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”), “Burning Bush” re-stages a landmark event in modern Czech history. On January 16th, 1969, 21-year-old student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square.

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.

Holland’s miniseries contravenes the “hero biopic” convention — that tendency to romanticize the protagonist’s life — by not recounting the young idealist’s exploits but focusing instead on the void generated by his death. The intimate tragedy of a familial loss is violated by the callous lies of a ruthless bureaucracy that tries to deprive Palach’s death of its political significance by attributing it to an imaginary right-wing conspiracy.

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.

Without indulging in simplistic duels between “good” and “evil,” the film captures the petty corruptions of a society descending into the grey abyss of mistrust and paranoia. Combing historical drama with the understated strain of a procedural thriller, “Burning Bushes” convincingly depicts the political and daily life of a country in the throes of fear. Inexorably, like a spreading disease, the virus of compliance reaps its victims as people start informing on each other, desperate for a sad slice of personal security. The intrepid determination of the young lawyer, Palach’s family and the student movement is all the more inspiring, for it’s fuelled by an uncompromising thirst for justice rather than the vain hope to “legally” triumph (the verdict will of course be in favour of the regime).

“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.

Stylistically the film delivers the kind of solid and slick visual storytelling to which the HBO brand has accustomed its viewers. The historical details are impeccable, from the accurate wardrobe choices to the chromatic rendition of a very bleak season, up to the remarkable use of “choreographically aged” locations. Verging more on the cinematic than on the more typical episodic structure of a TV series, “Burning Bush” is filled with sumptuous realizations that fitted the big screen elegantly. The miniseries format, on the other hand, perfectly accommodates a complex narrative that makes the most of its duration to distil an embroiled and realistic story.

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.

A version of this review was published last year when “Burning Bush” aired in Europe. It opens in New York at Film Forum on Wednesday and is available on Fandor. 

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