Monday, June 18, 2012

Leaving (orig. Odcházení) [2011]

Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CSFD listing - [CZ, ENG-Trans]

Leaving (orig. Odcházení) [CSFD, Eng-Trans], which played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago as part of an eight U.S. city "2012 New Czech Films Tour" sponsored by the Czech government, was written and directed by the late Czech President Václav Havel in retirement in the last year before his death.  Based on his stage-play by the same name it is on many levels a truly unique film.

First of all, I don't think that any former President of any nation has ever written and directed a film.  Second, this wasn't Nero or "Saddam Hussein" writing/directing a movie.  Instead, this film was made by someone who had been a legitimate avant-guard playwright turned dissident who had, after leading his nation to freedom and serving out his terms then as its President, happily returned to his original craft to write this play (available in English translation on Amazon) and then took the opportunity to make it into a film (under his own direction) before he died.  Noting the uniqueness of this project, the official release notes to the film quote Havel explaining his motivations:  "A stage play is something of a 1/2 finished work that the playwright offers to theatrical companies, which then put their own mark on the work as they put it on stage.  And the playwright ought to be fine with this or else turn to writing novels instead of stage plays.  However, after many decades of having my plays staged this way, I felt the desire to finally take the opportunity to interpret myself.  Additionally, [making this stage play] into a movie gives me a certain amount of satisfaction.  This because originally and really throughout my whole life. I've really wanted to be a film-maker.  Now perhaps I get the opportunity to fulfill this dream."

Those who had loved this man (and I, American-born but of Czech parents, had worn a "Free Vaclav Havel" t-shirt for years while I was in grad school in Los Angeles in the 1980s) would clearly appreciate the definite "swansong" feel to the film.  Here in this movie, we have a permanent record of at least one of Havel's plays made in the way that he wanted it to be made.  And IMHO, it is classic Havel:

Part Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, part Shakespeare's King Lear, a smidgen Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Physicists, and part Federico Felini's 8 1/2, it is about a departing "great man" Chancellor Vilém Rieger (played by Jozef Abrham [CSFD, Eng-trans]) who along with his family and entourage doesn't really know what comes next.  They are all still staying at a government-owned villa (Americans think of something like Camp David outside of Washington DC) somewhere outside of the capital and sense that they are probably going to have to leave but truth be said, they'd "kinda like to stay."

As outgoing Chancellor, Reiger is still receiving adulation/interest from fans and journalists.  At the beginning of the story, two journalists from the tabloid "Fuj" (translated best as "Yuck") come over to interview him.  And even though they are now just from a tabloid, Rieger gets a chance to still wax eloquent about "Freedom" and "the central importance of keeping the Human Person at the center of all political decisions."  But interviewer is inexperienced and he and the tabloid's photographer were sent there mostly to just take pictures...

Then Reiger sees a vision of a beautiful young woman, Bea Weissenmütelhofová (played by Barbora Seidlová [CSFD, Eng-Trans]), in a red dress walking across the pool in the garden to him to ask for an autograph.  Reiger's long-time companion and still striking 40-something Irena (played by Dagmar Veškrnová-Havlová [CSFD, Eng-Trans]) snifs, telling her partner, "Funny how you always find time to 'help' these beautiful young grad-students and funny how the only people who seem to be writing dissertations about you are young women, not one guy that I can remember ..." (Note that Dagmar Veškrnová-Havlová [CSFD, Eng-Trans] was actually Havel's wife ... ;-).

Sniveling two-faced Victor (played by Oldrich Kaiser [CSFD, Eng-Trans]) , the secretary to Reiger's secretary informs Reiger that the new Chancellor Vlastik Klein (played by Jaroslav Dušek) wants to come over to the villa to talk about Reiger's future.  When Klein arrives, his rhetoric sounds a lot like Vaclav Havel's chief nemisis during his presidency, the hardline Thatcherite Vaclav Klaus.  But he's dressed more like Vladimir Putin.  In any case, Klein is equivocal ... he wants some kind of deal from Reiger ...

In the meantime, Reiger's older daughter Vlasta (played by Tatiana Vilhemová [CSFD, Eng-Trans]) and her very odd-looking boyfriend, Albino, offer to "take-in" her father should he have to leave the villa but come with a contract asking for "certain concessions" (stuff from the villa?) before they agree.  Reiger's younger daughter Zuzana (played by Ivana Uhlírová [CSFD, Eng-Trans]) just walks around the villa's gardens with headphones on, talking to her friends via skype with her smartphone.  As unconcerned as she appears, she always seems to know everything that's going to happen before anybody else does ... ;-)

Much of course happens.  Does outgoing Chancellor Reiger and his family / entourage get to stay at the villa?  What does the new Chancellor Klein want from him?  What about Reiger's family and Reiger's long-time companion?  Will they make a successful transition from "being important" to being 'less so?"

It all makes for an interesting story.  And the film certainly does express both Vaclav Havel's whit as well his concerns about the future, notably that rhetoric about "Freedom" and the "Necessary Centrality of the Human Person" can really start to sound hollow after a while ... especially when the people using such slogans (Klaus?  Putin?) start intermixing such paeans with slogans from far more sinister times.

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