Monday, November 25, 2013

Burning Bush (orig. Hořicí Keř) [HBO-Europe Miniseries 2013]

MPAA (UR would be R) (8/10) (10/10)  Fr. Dennis-Zdeněk (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing
CSFD listing* listing* listing* (M. Spáčilová) review* (M. Černá) fact-check/review* review* (M. Kvasnička) review* review*

Burning Bush (orig. Hořicí Keř) [HBO-Europe Miniseries 2013] [IMDb] [CSFD]* []* []* (directed by Polish born Agnieszka Holland [IMDb] [CSFD]* []* []*, screenplay by  Štěpán Hulík [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) played recently as part of a "Czech Showcase" at the 25th Polish Film Festival in America held in Chicago, IL between Nov 8-24. 

The film tells the story of what many Czechs and Slovaks of the time came to consider the greatest and certainly most poignant act of defiance to the Aug 20-21, 1968 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the movement of liberalization of Communism that had been occurring there known as The Prague Spring.

Inspired perhaps by similar self-immolations by Buddhist monks in Saigon to protest the Vietnam War, on January 16, 1969, Jan Palach [wikip-ENG] [wikip-CZ]* a history student at Charles University in Prague, set himself on fire by the monument to St. Wenceslas (Patron Saint to the Czechs) on Prague's Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet Invasion/Occupation of his Country.  He died 3 days later and his death remained an open wound throughout the whole of the remainder of the Communist Era in Czechoslovakia.

I remember when visiting Prague as a child and as a teenager being taken by relatives by what had been Jan Palach's grave in Prague's Olšany Cemetery (my mother's family had its family grave at Olšany as well).  Palach's grave had become a site of veneration / quiet protest.  So in the dead of night, the Communists had Palach's body exhumed and cremated and had an old woman with no family buried there in his place.  No matter, mounds of candles and floral tributes remained being placed there in memory of Jan Palach until the end of the Communist Era when his cremains were re-interred there.  I myself am a witness to those candles and flowers placed there in silent protest during the Communist era.

The miniseries here tells the story of Jan Palach in three parts.  The first part begins on the morning of January 16, 1969, showing an anonymous young man carrying a briefcase and a plastic gas-can of liquid over to the side of the rather large statue of / monument to St. Wenceslas on Prague's Wenceslas Square.  He set the briefcase and the gas-can down, apparently rubbed some (oil based?) cream on the upper torso of his body, then poured the gasoline from the gas-can on himself, pulled-out a matchbox from his briefcase, struck a match and set himself ablaze.

The film portrayed bystanders as initially not understanding what was going on.  Palach had appeared to be simply a young man.  Okay he was carrying a gas-can, but he could have been a motorcyclist.  Okay he had rubbed some kind of a cream on his chest.  Perhaps he was an athlete of some sort.  And when he set himself on fire, and yes, began to run about, involuntarily/necessarily in pain (that detail, that he did run around while on fire made sense to me as, knowing the story, I had wondered for a good part of my life what Palach's reaction would have been after he had set himself ablaze) it took a few seconds for bystanders to snap-out of a stunned gaze at this strange sight and respond by trying to put the flames out and call an ambulance for help.

Why did he do it?  Well there was a letter in his briefcase and he left another copy of the same letter in is dorm-room.  The letter stated (and this I did not know before seeing the film) that he was the first of a group of five or six others who had determined that the situation in the country was so grave that they would start immolating themselves, one every five or six days, until their demands were met.  The number one demand was an end to all censorship in the country and _presumably_ the  final demand was an end to the Soviet occupation.

This was pretty terrifying stuff.  Almost NOBODY believed that a campaign of self-immolations was going to bend the will of the Soviet occupiers, and yet almost all the Czechoslovak authorities in Prague (TO SAY  NOTHING OF PARENTS) feared that there could be a lot of dead young people as a result.

What the heck to do?  The first part of this miniseries was about the fevered days between Jan Palach's immolation and his death three days later, when all of Czechoslovak society came together -- from the most sympathetic to Palach's act (idealistic/patriotic students) to the Czechoslovak authorities who had visions of mounds of dead young people while the Soviet Army which had by then largely retired to the outskirts of the city coming back into Prague to simply crush everything, to frankly terrified PARENTS across the land -- to invent a "noble lie": Palach from his death bed instructing those who would be considering following him in this path of self-immolation TO NOT DO SO, telling them that from his perspective _now_, LYING IN A BURN WARD WITH LITTLE CHANCE OF RECOVERY and EVEN IF HE DID, WITH LITTLE CHANCE OF EVER LEADING A NORMAL LIFE, this was NOT the path to go.

Interestingly, the Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny (Lidovky) reporting on the historicity of this miniseries* notes that THIS MESSAGE WAS ACTUALLY BROADCAST ON CZECHOSLOVAK TELEVISION at the time, but by Prague Student Union leader (and friend of Palach) Lubomír/Luboš Holeček.* The miniseries had Palach's "message" delivered by a girlfriend/acquaintance of Palach's, in the series named Hana Čížková (and played by Emma Smetana [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*).  Why the change?  There is a character based in good part on Luboš Holeček in the series named Ondřej Trávníček (played by Vojtěch Kotek [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*).  However, while Luboš Holeček* himself died, his wife of that time lives to this day and there were some disagreements between how the series-makers wanted to portray him and his wife of the time wished that he be remembered.  So the film-makers chose to invent a character largely based on Holeček* but sufficiently different from him to not cause problems with Holeček's widow.

Much of the first episode focuses on Jan Palach's family about how his brother Jiří (played by Petr Strach [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) and mother Libuše (played by Jaroslava Pokorná [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) found out about Jan's self-immolation.  Not altogether surprisingly, he hadn't told them a word of his plans.  More painfully, he had left no special/separate note for them.

The first episode ended with Jan Palach's death and funeral, which naturally in the politically explosive climate of Prague at the time, produced a massive if temporary outpouring of grief.

The second episode began some months later with a young copycat Jan Zajíc, a teenager/secondary schooler, immolating himself again by the monument to St Wenceslas on Prague's Wenceslas Square.  Zajíc's case was hardly reported and authorities and the state media tried very hard and largely succeeded in separating his case from that of Palach's.  In as much as it was mentioned in the Czechoslovak (Communist controlled) Press at all, Zajíc's suicide was simply reported as that of a distraught young teen.

But by this time, Czechoslovakia, still occupied, (Soviet troops, if perhaps somewhat discretely, remained on Czech and Slovak soil until after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989) was now quite well on its way toward post-invasion "Normalization" (what an Orwellian term...).  And at a meeting of Communist officials in the provincial town of Ceská Lípa, a certain delegate named Vilém Nový (played by Martin Huba [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) denounced Jan Palach as having been (1) part of a radically right-wing group of extremists, (2) in contact with and influenced by foreign agents and (3) in any case duped into an immolation that was supposed to have been faked (that he was supposed to have set himself on fire using a substance called "cold fire" supposedly used by circus acts and at the last minute _somebody_ had switched the "cold fire" liquid with actual gasoline).

Well, Czechoslovakia nearing the one year anniversary of the Soviet invasion may have been well on its path toward "Normalization" but it was not there yet: Palach's mother and brother DECIDE TO FILE AN ANTI-DEFAMATION SUIT against Vilém Nový.  And they come to a lawyer named Dagmar Burešová [wiki-CZ]* (played by Tatiana (Táňa) Pauhofová [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) to represent them.

Now much of the drama of the second part of the miniseries centered on the miniseries' posited initial reluctance of  Ms. Burešová J.Dr. [wiki-CZ]* to take-on the case.  And one would certainly understand why a Czechoslovak lawyer at the time would have been reluctant to take-on such a case.  It was almost certainly going to end in a loss and it opened one up, AND ONE'S FAMILY UP, for all kinds of retribution.  Yet, interestingly, that's not how her husband Radim Bureš (played in the film by Jan Budař  [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) actually remembers things according to the historicity-checking article by Lidove Noviny (Lidovky).  Instead, he remembers his wife defending all kinds of politically persecuted people at the time, including the Palach family.  So he doesn't believe that she wavered at all.

Yet one year on after the invasion, Czechoslovak society was being purged of those unwilling to adapt to new realities on the ground (with the Soviet fraternal brothers keeping their troops on Czechoslovak soil and certainly "close enough" to Prague to make sure that "things went their way.")

The second part of the miniseries ends with the aftermath of the street demonstrations marking the one year anniversary of the Soviet Invasion and students as well as various intellectuals/professionals learning the hard way that their participation in such "anti-socialist actions" would hence-forth result in heavy sanction: In the summary expulsion of students from university for participating in demonstrations, and in the termination of employment for those professional who refused loyalty oaths to the post-invasion regime.  (Some of the best educated window-washers and street-cleaners in the world in the 1970 and 80s were found in Prague).

Disgusted with the aftermath of the first anniversary street demonstrations, the series has a Prague police officer Mjor Jireš (played by Ivan Trojan [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) putting his revolver into the drawer of his desk at work and in the next scene driving his family cross the border to Austria.  Like most Czechs and Slovaks of the time, he had been appalled by the Soviet Invasion of his country, but he was also a policeman.  So in the first episode we saw him feverishly working on the Palach case trying to discover if there really was a cell of students like Palach set on immolating themselves for their country - IN ORDER TO DISSUADE THEM FROM DOING SO.  And unable to find said group, it is his department that finds at least Palach's acquaitance/girlfriend to put her on camera read the invented message do dissuade would be copycats from doing the same as Palach did.  Yet, seeing students now being thrown out of school (their futures distroyed) for simply protesting against the Soviet Invasion (that everybody opposed), he had enough.   And like 100,000 Czechs and Slovaks following the invasion, he packed-up his family and said goodbye to the country.

The third part of the miniseries focuses on the preparation for the trial and then the trial itself.  And it felt very much like Oliver Stone's JFK [1991].  The "fix" was obviously in, and everybody involved in the prosecution was being harrassed.  Lawyer Dagmar Berešová's husband, a doctor, lost his job at a Prague hospital and the only job he could find was at a clinic in the outlying provincial town of Beroun a long drop from working at "Prague General Hosp."

The Palach family, of course, faced worse.  Mom, Libuše, found herself in and out of psychiatric institutions (and remember here that these would be are Communist Era mental institutions, not necessarily interested making one better, but more in keeping troublesome people down.  Refer to Alois Nebel [2011] to better understand).  And Palach's brother Jiří finds himself under increasing pressure by the authorities to "do something" regarding Jan Palach's grave, that is, to move Palach's remains from Prague.  And eventually, as I wrote above, Jan Palach's remains were dug up and cremated and a completely unrelated person buried in his place (Again, I myself am a witness to some of this part of the story).

The trial, when it gets to trial of course, ends up a farce.  Vilém Nový is vindicated in the ANTI-DEFAMATION SUIT AGAINST HIM despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Lawyer  Berešová got in her hands both the text of  Nový's speech (which then went missing from her office just before trial ...) and then even found A RECORDING OF IT BEING GIVEN at the Česká Lípa gathering.  Finally, Comrade Nový's claims in his speech that Palach actually wanted to "fake" his immolation made no sense.  Why would one want to do that?  What would be the point of _faking_ a self-immolation?

No matter.  The only "truth" that counted at the time, was "that which serves the working class ..." (hence that which served the Communist Party, hence ultimately that which served those allied once more with the Soviet Occupiers).

Nový went free and arguably received an apology from the Court for having had _his reputation_ questioned...
Interestingly the Lidove Noviny (Lidovky) fact-checking article notes that the trial was actually even a bigger farce than portayed in the film.  This is because the Palachs were not the only ones claiming defamation by Nový.  Writer Pavel Kohout and legendary Czech Olympic distance runner Emil Zátopek were involved in the case as well (and if I understand it, were claiming that they were defamed by Vilém Nový as well).

But the series ends with a reminder that no matter what the Communist authorities did, the memory of Jan Palach and his self-immolation in protest to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia could not be erased, that it remained seared into the memory of the Czech and Slovak peoples.  Indeed, the series noted that demostrations in Czechoslovakia in January, 1989 in commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of Jan Palach's death began a year of ever increasing demonstrations in Prague until the Communist regime fell in November of that year.

The series also noted that after the fall of the Communist regime,  Dagmar Burešová J.Dr. [wiki-CZ]* became the country's first post-Communist Minister of Justice.

Great film!

ADDENDUM:  Among the Czech language reviews* that I included above is one that comes from a youth oriented website named  It comes from Brno, the Czech Republic's "second city" and one that's become something of a "college town" there in recent years.

The complaint of the site's reviewer was not so much against the mini-series itself but rather that "the current generation appears doomed to see little else than one presentation after another about the awful years under Communism."  I include the review* here because (1) Palach himself was a young person, a student when he sacrificed himself in this way for his country, and I do wonder if Palach was a young person today if he'd actually sympathize/agree with's reviewer, and (2) I actually do understand and sympathize with the complaint (to a point). 

Indeed, when I do go to film festivals here in Chicago that feature films from the former Communist Bloc, I try very hard to find some truly POST-COMMUNIST films in addition to the historical films.  And arguably I prefer the "newer themed films."  Indeed, I've told plenty of friends over the years that growing up, "Hitler and Stalin were uninvited guests at pretty much every one of my family's gatherings."  Still, history is history and we can't really escape from it.  But it's been my hope that we can grow-through the past to create things that are better and new.  Heck, I'm a Catholic priest, talk about "rooted in the past."  But past need not be everything.  One can grow toward a better future without simply taking an axe to what was before.

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Delivery Man [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Delivery Man [2013] (written and directed by Ken Scott is a near carbon-copy of the French-Canadian original named Starbuck [2012] also directed by and screenplay co-authored by Ken Scott along with Martin Petit).

Now many folks may complain about the decision to make an English language copy of a foreign (if, in the US, still English-subtitled) film.  On the other hand, the original was quite, well... "original" ;-) and honestly many Americans would probably not see the French language original because of its subtitles.  And despite the film's obviously problematic premise I do believe that it's worth seeing (by adults anyway.  PARENTS TAKE NOTE: I honestly don't understand the somewhat laughable PG-13 rating...). 

The film is about an amiable if serial loser named David Wosniak (played _superbly_ in the current version by Vince Vaughn) who finds to his initial shock/dismay (really to the initial shock/dismay of EVERYONE AROUND HIM) that he did succeed (and spectacularly so) in ONE THING in life: Ever with debt problems, back in his 20s, he used to try to supplement his income by DONATING SPERM to a sperm bank and ... well ... 20 years later (now) a lawyer comes by to tell him that he had sired 533 children (!!) of which over 140 (again !!) were now suing the clinic for the release of his name ...

Yes, if David Wosniak had been a good Catholic and followed Church teaching on -- oh, let's make a list, shall we: (1) masturbation, (2) selling his ejaculated sperm to a sperm bank for (3) artificial insemination (all of which are considered objectively sinful by Catholic Church teaching) -- this predicament never would have happened.

Indeed, the film provides an EXCELLENT ILLUSTRATION of the kind of problems that ensue when Church Teaching on sexual matters is stupidly/arrogantly dismissed/ignored: There are 533 kids here who don't know their dad, and a lot of them would like to. as one would assume would be their _natural right_ to know.

But the 533, now adult, children do exist and over 140 of them do want to know who their father is.  And having learned of this, David Wosniak himself, _naturally_ would like to know something of all those children that he's helped create.

That then is the rest of the movie ... (as it was in the French Canadian original)

And while irritatingly it seems that THE ONLY ONE in the Wosniak family who still wants to pray (at a family dinner...) is the Wosniak family's esteemed father/patriarch, founder of the family's business for which perpetually "loser-son" David works as a humble (and still largely incompetent) delivery man, the film offers actually audiences opportunity to reflect on Church Teaching regarding not only (1) SEXUAL MATTERS (everyone, Catholic or not, would certainly see the situation in which David Wosniak and his 533 progeny find themselves in as problematic, hence BY DEFINITION at least on some level _sinful_), but also (2) LIFE (regardless of how they got here, those 533 people _are now_ here, AND HOW REMARKABLE IS THAT ;-), and ABOVE ALL (3) FORGIVENESS (what an opportunity to reflect on the felix culpa (happy fault) of even Adam and Eve, which we remember during the Easter Vigil Liturgy as "bringing us so great a Redeemer").

Often times contemporary society completely rejects the concept of Sin,  but often enough, it also rejects the possibility of Forgiveness (or makes it so hard that it's de facto impossible to achieve).  In contrast, the Church recognizes the world for what it is (created by God but finding itself now in a still largely Fallen State) AND yet ALSO PROCLAIMS that FORGIVENESS IS POSSIBLE that, indeed, "there is no offense, however, serious that the Church can not forgive" (CCC #982).  Indeed, people sometimes _laugh_ at the ease at which the Catholic Church forgives (Consider the recent film Don Jon [2013] where the lead character's weekly stops at the Confessional make much of the comic fodder for the film).  Yet how much more humane is that than living in a society where Sin is first denied and yet when people fall into trouble (as a result of Sin....) the possibility of forgiveness is denied (or de facto denied) as well.

So as in the case of many contemporary comedies ... this film leaves one with much to think about ;-)

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Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire [2013] (directed by Francis Lawrence, screenplay Simon Beaufoy and Michael drBruyn based on the novel by Suzanne Collins [IMDb]) is the second cinematic installment of Collins' Hunger Games [Amazon] trilogy.  The installment The Hunger Games [2012] was released (and reviewed here) last year.

The Hunger Games [Amazon] trilogy depicts a totalitarian North America of some 100 years in the future, divided into 12 or 13 districts all seething with resentment after a failed revolt 75-years before against a utopian but decadent/distant "Capital" and all united under a nation state called PanAm.

Part of the strategy of "keeping the peace," the Capital organizes an annual "reality show from Hell" called "The Hunger Games" in which two young "tributes," one male, one female, would be selected from each of the Districts to then compete (fight to the death) on an elaborate Survivor-like set (Survivor [IMDb] meets William Golding's Lord of the Flies [Amazon] [IMDb]) for the amusement of the residents of the Capital and the horror of the residents of PanAm's outlying Districts.  It seen as an annual exhibition of Power, reminding the residents of the Districts that the Capital can truly do whatever it wants with them -- including having them kill each other in elaborate scenarios for the Capital's amusement. 

In the first installment, the series' heroine Katniss Everdeen (played in the series by Jennifer Lawrence) who's good with her hunter's bow, chooses to volunteer to serve as tribute from her home Appalachia-looking District #12 in place of her much younger sister (selected by lot) who would have certainly died in the Games.  That in itself came to be seen throughout PanAm as an "unusual act" (of sacrifice, love, ... defiance?).

Then, since the Hunger Games were conceived as being an "interactive exercise" where the well-fed, richer (otherwise bored ...) folks in the Capital were encouraged to "take sides" and "help" their favorites "get an edge" in the Games through the purchase for them of some "odd gifts" (presumably on some "online registry," like some special arrows (especially if they find that their "favorite" is running out of them), perhaps some medicine if their favorite found him/herself wounded, or perhaps some special _poison_ to tip those arrows with ...), the Games' organizers found themselves with something of a problem as these particular Games were coming to an end:

TO EVERYONE'S SURPRISE, Katniss cut such a sympathetic figure to the viewers in the Capital that near the end of the Games when only two constants were left -- her and the other District 12 tribute Peeta (played by Josh Hutchenson) -- the viewers couldn't bear to watch either her being killed of her having to kill Peeta.  What to do?  Well the organizers of the Games -- with consultation and the permission of PanAm's "president" (probably for life... that's how these things usually go...) Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) -- DECIDED TO LET BOTH OF "THE LOVE BIRDS" LIVE.

That made for "good TV" and "Games' show host" Ceasar Flickerman (played by Stanley Tucci) was certainly pleased with this "memorable outcome," as was Katniss' and Peeta's hard-drinking "coach" Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson) the only other "winner" (survivor) from District 12 in the history of the Games and one who had been convinced that, as in every year past, the only thing that he could possibly hope for was that _one_ of the two contestants he was required to "coach" was going to make it out alive ... and usually BOTH were killed (Wouldn't you drink too if that was the kind of job that you were assigned, year in and year out and there was nothing you could do about it...).

Anyway, both "coach" and "Games MC" were happy but President Snow started to get worried ... After all, part of the purpose of the Hunger Games was to support a sense of hopelessness among the residents of the Districts -- that there was almost no hope of survival, and even if one did "survive" the games (after killing a lot of others), all that happened that like Haymitch Abernathy, one was then tasked for the rest of one's life to "train" others facing a similarly hopeless fate.  Yet here, Katniss, despite facing her own certain death, had saved at least two other people -- her younger sister and Peeta -- and EVEN IN THE CAPITAL the viewers found her actions so admirable/sympathetic that they didn't want her to die either.  And that was in the Capital ... how were her actions being perceived in the outlying Districts?

So this is where the second installment, Catching Fire [2012] in this series begins.  During the course of their "victory tour" (during which Peeta and Katniss are asked to sheepishly pay some homage to the fallen tributes of from the other districts that they would be visiting) EVERYBODY finds that the residents of the other Districts were becoming "more defiant."  Mind you, defiance often meant death ... but whether in the African American heavy "Old South" District 11 or heavily forested Pacific Northwest like District 7, as well as elsewhere ... there appeared people willing to die now rather than simply submit to the whims of The Capital.  Even Katniss' little sister (played by Willow Shields) tells her that both ma' and her support her and would be willing to die in support of the new Hope that Katniss has seemed to inspire across the land.

What to do?  Well, a new character enters the mix, "the Game Designer" Plutarch Heavensbee (played by Phillip Seymor Hoffman),  He convinces the President to take advantage of the 75th Anniversary of the Hunger Games to proclaim a "Special Hunger Games" that year that would involve a reunion of all the living winner/survivors of the previous 25 years of the Hunger Games.  This would ensure that only one of the "winners" of those previous Hunger Games would survive this new "all star" round ... and thus _reinstate_ the sense of Hopelessness that the Hunger Games were supposed to inspire in the Districts.  The President _likes_ the idea.

But it proves a little more "complicated" than that.  In the ramp-up to the Games, where the contestants are trotted out in front of the cameras "to create an emotional bond" with the Capital's viewers (who would then "help" them in various ways during the course of the Games) ... the past winners themselves are more defiant and certainly more emotionally manipulative than when they had entered their previous Games as "amateurs" or "rookies."  So will even the Capital's people be able to bear watching bloodfest involving more than a few people that they've come to like?   And what of the more defiant contestants?  How can one force them to continue to "play the game" when they've _all_ already "been there" when it ends, and may not want to "be there" again (on top of a pile of corpses).

So then the rest of the movie follows ... ;-)

Regarding the story telling of the rest of the film ... The film does has a sense of being a "transitional" part of the story.  While the first film could stand on its own, this film could not.  It depends on what happened in the previous film and on what presumably will happen afterwards.  Still, the acting was quite good and, in my opinion, more believable than in the first part.  (I had trouble believing the premise of the first part of the film ... Due to this country's religious/historical heritage I found it hard to believe that the residents of the United States would EVER accept the kind of tottalitarian hopelessness portrayed at the beginning of the first film.  That's why the second film was far more believable to me ... there was defianc which I'd naturally expect in this country born of both democratic and yes Christian tradition).

Anyway, it all makes for a good story and look forward to Part III (or Part IIIa) nest year ;-)

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Flying Blind [2012]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing*

Flying Blind ]2012] [IMDb] []* (directed by Katarzyna Klimkiewicz [IMDb] []* written by Caroline Harrington, Bruce McLeod and Naomi Wallace) is a film written and financed in the U.K., though directed by a young Polish director hired to do the job.  It played recently at the 25th Polish Film Festival in America held in Chicago between Nov 8-24, 2013.

The film is about a British middle-aged aerospace engineer and lecturer at a university in Bristol, England in her 40s named Frankie (played by Helen McCrory) who enters into a relationship with a significantly younger Algerian who introduced himself to her as Kalil (played by Najib Oudghiri) an engineering student presumably at the university where she lectures.

How'd they meet?  Well, one afternoon after a lecture of hers as she was walking toward her car parked in a parking garage, he just came over to her, smiling, and introduced himself.  She didn't necessarily recognize him from the lecture she had just given, but then engineering classes are often quite large and students of Middle-Eastern/Arabic descent are not uncommon.  They chatted.  Smiled.  At some quite normal point, she excused herself, telling him that she had to get to her car.  He quite graciously let her continue to her car and that was that.

A few days later, he met into her again, this time on the street.  Again, he was disarmingly friendly, smiled.  She joked "You're not stalking me, are you?"  And smiled back, "Of course not."  They chatted some.  She asked him if he'd bought an engineering book that she recommended to him when they ran into each other the first time.  He answered that no didn't buy it because he didn't have the money.  She offered then to lend him hers.  And she offered to take him to her flat just down the street to lend him the copy.

After coming to her place, her going up to get him the book, returning with it, he asked her if she'd like to get something to eat.  They've become somewhat friends, she says, yes.

And so she enters into this rather interesting relationship with a significantly younger, but good looking, hair kinda wild ..., engineering student from Algeria, who she seemed kinda flattered / kinda proud of herself seemed interested in her.

The rest of the movie follows.  And yes, the obvious question that the (target western) audience is asked throughout the whole film is: Was this a good decision?

Why would it not be a good decision?  Well, she's an aerospace engineer.  She works for the defense industry, on drones, we're informed.  He's Algerian (North African/Muslim).  Though he does not, she discovers that a lot (but by no means all) of his friends wear Middle Eastern clothes.  They all, of course, speak Arabic, often in front of her.  She, of course, does not understand a word that they are saying.  She also finds that he's lied to her.  He ISN'T, presently, an engineering student at the university where she lectures.  When she confronts him about this, he tells her that "he used to be."  When he leaves his laptop lying about in her flat, she can't resist and checks what he's been reading on the internet ... and it seems to be her worst nightmare: He seems to be reading _nothing but_ really militant-looking Islamic websites ... lots of Arabic characters, lots of Kalishnikovs and M-16s portrayed, hostages blindfolded, so forth.  She asks him about that.  He has an answer: "I come from Algeria.  The only people who honestly report there are Muslims."   At some point the British authorities start to ask questions of her (after all, she's an aerospace engineer): WHY ARE YOU HANGING OUT WITH THIS GUY?  Arguably, HER OWN ACTIONS put him on a list of "persons of interest" to the British Authorities.

It goes on.  Who is he?  Who is he, indeed? ... Go see the film ;-)

POSTSCRIPT:  The film screening was attended by the nice smiling, Polish-born director where she explained to us viewers afterwards that she was offered the job to direct this film after showing a short of hers called Hanoi-Warsaw [2009] [IMDb] []* at a film festival in England, and she felt that she was picked for the job because she could partly identify with both of the main characters: (1) Frankie, the woman trying to make her way, _independently_, in a male dominated field where all kinds of questions were constantly being asked about her judgement, and (2) Kalil because she too spent some years in England, elsewhere, at times illegally, where she too had to be really careful with who to be honest with.  Anyway, it was a great story and I do wish her and the other film-makers of her generation from Poland / Central Europe all the best.  This is your time folks to make your mark.  This is your time!

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.

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Viva Belarus! (orig. Żywie Biełaruś!) [2012]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing* (V. Kustava) review* (A. Stankiewicz & P. Śmiłowicz) review* (L. Kurpiewski) review* (M. Goetz) review* (M. Janik) review*

Viva Belarus! (orig. Żywie Biełaruś!) [2012] [IMDb] []* (directed and cowritten by Krzysztof Łukaszewicz [IMDb] []* as well as Franak Viačorka [IMDb] []*) played recently at the 25th Annual Polish Film Festival in America held in Chicago between Nov 8-24, 2013.

Franak Viačorka [IMDb] []*[YouTubeCh] is the son Vincuk Viačorka of a Belarusian nationalist who had been repeatedly harassed and jailed by authorities during Franak's childhood for his defense of Belarusian language and identity in their home Belarus.  A DOCUMENTARY IN ITS ENTIRETY (English subtitled) largely about the father and son and the pro-democracy movement in Belarus as of 2006 can be found on YouTube under the title "A Lesson of Belarusian."

Belarus has long been a borderland region between Catholic and Orthodox Christiandom.  To the West were Roman Catholic/Latin-alphabet using Poland and Lithuania, while to the east was Orthodox Christian/Cyrillic alphabet using Russia.   In previous centuries, the general region was identified on maps as Ruthenia, with Belarus sometimes called "White Ruthenia."  Byelorussia ("White Russia") was also an administrative region in Czarist Russia and a constituent "Soviet Socialist Republic" of the Soviet Union always with Minsk as its capital.  Between World Wars I and II, the western half of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Byelorussia (with boundaries redrawn) as well as today's Belarus had been part of Poland

I know _a little_ about the region for a couple of reasons: (1) a constituent part of my parents' pre-WW II Czechoslovakia was a region called Podkarpatská Rus (Sub-Carpathian Rus/Ruthenia) and (2) in my work as a (Roman) Catholic priest, I would run occasionally into folks who would identify themselves as having followed (or their parents having followed) the Ruthenian Rite.  A follower of the Ruthenian Rite would have been an Eastern or Byzantine Catholic following the Eastern/Byzantine Liturgy though in union with the Pope in Rome.  A Ruthenian Catholic would distinguish him/herself from a general Eastern/Byzantine Rite Catholic (a Greek Catholic or a Ukrainian Catholic) in that the Liturgy would be celebrated in the Ruthenian/Rusyn (or Belorusian...) language.

All this is to respond to those (both in the West and ... in the East...) who would ask "Is there a Belarusian culture or language?" that to the people of Belarus, the answer would a rather emphatic yes.  According to the 1999 census in Belarus, 36.7% declared it as the "language spoken at home," and 85.6% as their "mother tongue."  And yet, despite Belarusian (along with Russian) having an "equal status" according to Belarus' own Constitution, the indigenous Belarusian language remains often discouraged by the Russian-preferring regime dominated by Belarus' president, more-or-less for life, Alexander Lukashenko, a regime that remains more or less obviously allied with Russia to the East and remains "more Soviet" (still is effectively run by one party, Lukashenko's, still has collective farms, still retains the old Byelorussian SSR flag minus the hammer and sickle...) than post-Communist Russia itself.

This then forms the historical/political/cultural backdrop to the current film, which is based in good part on Franak Viačorka's life.

Franak's alter-ego in the film, Miron (played by Dźmitry Vinsent Papko [IMDb] []*) begins the film as something of a cheerful "slacker," or lead guitarist of a not particularly remarkable Belarusian punk band with a typically somewhat "over the top" / pretentious, young testosterone driven name "Forza" (meaning "Power") not particularly interested in politics but rather mostly in girls and letting off steam.  When one of his band's concerts goes a little overboard, however, with a band-member perhaps having had too much to drink (or perhaps simply swept-up by the emotion of playing onstage in a club at a rock concert...) starts chanting "Long live Belarus!" (which becomes the film's title...) and the young people in the club start chanting this as well, the aghast/jittery Stalinist authorities decide it's time to "regain control."  Tear gas canisters get thrown on stage and into the crowd and baton wielding riot police storm the place, quickly bringing to an end a show that in a normal country would have posed no more of a threat to "order" or "rule of law" than a drunk band-member at our Parish's annual Annunciata Fest starting to chant: "Long Live the East Side" or "Long Live Chicago!" (or perhaps somewhat more provocatively "Viva la East Side" or "Viva Mexico!" ;-)

In any case, the "powers-that-be" were not amused and stormed in.  Then to wreak petty vengeance on this rather average punk band with its somewhat pretentious/young testosterone driven name, the authorities sniff around the backgrounds of the band-members and discover that good ol' Miron had three times gotten a deferment from Belarusian military service and so ... no more.  In the days following that "awesome concert, with like tear gas canisters flying and police batons flailing about ..." (imagine how a 20 year old, any 20 year old would relate that story ...) Miron finds himself summoned to the draft board and ... Drafted.

So where does the Belarusian army send its problematic draftees, those drafted not for their fitness but more out of spite ... well, to a base somewhere near Chernobyl ... basically to a prison / modern day Gulag "that glows..." ;-) or more appropriately :-(.  Note that while Chernobyl itself was located on the Ukrainian side of the Ukranian/Belarusian border, the most contaminated areas as a result of the nuclear disaster there were in Belarus.

But even in Belarus, "Times They Are a Changing ..." So even from this military base for "politically unreliable conscripts" Miron is able to use a clandestine cell-phone to report news of the goings-on at his base to his girlfriend Viera (played in the film by Karolina Gruszka [IMDb] []*) who places his reports somewhat anonymously onto a blog.  (Note this is based on Franak Viačorka's personal experience as after he was drafted into the Belarusian army he maintained a blog called "Life of a Belarusian Solider" published by an independent Belarusian newsoutlet called Belapan to the obvious consternation of the Belarusian military that repeatedly sought to isolate / punish him for this during his time of service.  But he always seemed to get his news out anyway.

Among the most notable abuses that he reported on was the beating of a Belarussian draftee who had refused to take the loyalty oath to the country in Russian but rather insisted that he be allowed to do so in his native Belarusian.  For despite Belarus' nominal independence,  RUSSIAN REMAINED THE ONLY OFFICIAL LANGUAGE until recently IN THE BELARUSIAN ARMY.  Once reported "outside" (by Miron in the film and perhaps in real life by Viačorka through his blog) THAT CONTRADICTION could not stand.  So sometime later, Belarusian was allowed to be used as a second alternate language IN THE BELARUSIAN ARMY (as per its 'equal dignity' guaranteed by the Belarus' Constitution).

Of course much still ensues.  After all, running an independent blog in an authoritarian state pining for "simpler" (totalitarian) times would be expected to be risky business...

And at one point Miron, now more in the spirit of Franak's father Vincuk Viačorka, decides to run for Belarus' Parliament (Vincuk Viačorka had headed Belarus' opposition party the BPF Party from 1999-2007) ... with the expected problems and results.

All in all, the film is a very interesting (and very sad) one, about the Opposition's challenges in trying to bring freedom to Europe's last dictatorship. 

At' žije Bělarusko!

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Best Man's Holiday [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChiTrib (3 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTirbune (M. Phillips) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

I found Best Man's Holiday [2013] (written and directed by Malcolm D. Lee) to be an unexpected surprise. Yes, parents note that the R-rating is deserved.  The film is NOT for kids, but DEFINITELY for parents with kids.  But I honestly found it to be far better than I expected it to be given some of the reviews above.

Further, together with a fair number of African-American films that I've reviewed here in recent years and a number of other African-American films that are scheduled to be released in the coming months, I do have to say that talk of a "Black Hollywood Renaissance" [BBC] [CNN] [Ebony] [HPost] is nnot unwarranted. 

I've come to believe this because of the sheer variety of the African American films (more often than not written/dirrected by African Americans and definitely starring predominantly African American casts) coming out from biopics/history (Fruitvale Station [2013], Lee Daniels: The Butler [2013], 12 Years a Slave [2013], Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom [2013]) to drama (Flight [2012], Tyler Perry's Good Deeds [2012], Tyler Perry's Temptation:Confessions of a Marriage Counselor [2013], Black Nativity [2013]), dramedies (Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family [2011], and the current film, Best Man's Holiday [2013]) to romcoms (Jumping the Broom [2011], Baggage Claim [2013]) to even action films like Alex Cross [2012] and because ALL of these films, while African American in orientation are UNIVERSAL IN THEME.

Additionally, Chicago hosts a number of excellent African / African American film festivals each year that often get into particulars of African and African American experience.  (Please scroll down my Film Festivals page to check the often excellent films that I've reviewed of this kind).  So honestly, this seems to be a remarkable time to be an African American film-maker or simply a follower of African American films).

So why was I so impressed by this film?  Well, I entered the film with rather low expectations, choosing to see it only after the weekend, on a Monday morning (before noon matinee...) ... expecting it to be something of an African-American Big Chill [1983] in which a number of former college friends (since becoming quite disparate) get together after 10-15 years for a not altogether clear reason to spend a somewhat raunchy, and certainly not particularly edifying weekend reminiscing about a distant past that didn't matter much to most of them anymore (the "Big Chill" wasn't called that for nothing...).

Elements of the "Big Chill" formula are certainly present in this film, actually a 15-years since sequel to an African American young adult dramedy/romcom called The Best Man [1999]: The former friends, many long since grown apart, are invited for initially rather unclear reason to spend the Christmas holiday at the palatial home of the by-far most successful couple of the bunch: NFL football star Lance Sullivan (played by Morris Chestnut) and his wife Mia (played by Monica Calhoun).

And yes, some of the invited guests, often far less successful than the Sullivans, like Lance's former best friend (and his former Best Man), writer, Harper Stewart (played by Taye Diggs) and his wife Robyn (played by Sanaa Lathan) wonder initially why they're being invited now to the Sullivans for, let's face it, as intimate a holiday as Christmas: Was it to show off?  And yes, though all the former friends do accept their invitation, there is friction in the air:

Harper's reeling from (1) having lost his teaching job at NYU (he says, "due to budget cuts...'), (2) having had his latest manuscript rejected by his publisher as unsellable (because his last book had been a flop and there seemed to nothing in the new work that inspired confidence that it would do better) even as (3) it seems that he and Robyn are finally going to have a baby (Robyn's 8 months pregnant after apparently enduring several miscarriages in the past, and the doctor's been warning her that it's not going to be an easy delivery ... it looks like the baby's gonna come out feet first, hence she recommends scheduling a c-section ... to be paid for ... how exactly??).  It's in the midst of all this drama at work and at home, that they get an invitation to come to their rich former friends for Christmas, even though hadn't done much of anything with them in years.

Indeed, one gets the sense that Harper wouldn't go at all if not for the "bug" having been put in his ear by his publisher to see if he could write a book about his retiring über-successful NFL running back friend.   But it's quite literally a "Hail Mary" ...

So they come to the Sullivan's suburban New Jersey estate and (of coruse) it's perfect -- beautiful snow-covered grounds, enormous front room when they with a gigantic Christmas tree standing by a beautiful grand-staircase leading to the upwards, somewhere (almost certainly again "grand and beautiful" ...).  And there to greet them oh so graciously are Mia, Mia and Lance's coutnt them THREE cute as a button kids..., and then Lance who'd seem to prefer to spit to the side rather shake Harper's hand (but Mia seemed to want this holiday to be spent together, so ...).

The other guests come with their own surprises and baggage.    There's Mia's never married, always "busy" former best-friend Jordan (played by Nia Long), also in publishing..., comes to the event with her very decent but also very white (...) boyfriend Brian (played by Eddie Cibrian) from an apparently "old moneyed" WASPish family with roots in the snow covered mountains of Vermont.

There's Quentin (played by Terrence Howard) who's also become quite successful as a NY music producer, but everybody seems to dismiss as slease.

There's education specialist charter-school operator Julian Murch (played by Herald Perrineau) who's been married and since divorced from another "member of the gang" invited to this party, Shelby (played by Melissa De Sausa).

Shelby, in turn, comes to the gathering, with presumably her and Julian's 10 year old daughter, with apparently a goal of causing as much grief as possible to her "goody-two-shoes" ex.  Why?  Presumably because while she's become wildly successful and perhaps wildly more successful than he (by being an actress in a raunchy Desperate Housewives [IMDb]  knockoff called "Real Housewives of Westchester County"), it appeared that Julian (focused on building schools for poor people...) was the one who _dumped_ her.

Yet, Julian comes with a second problem.  It's recently come to his attention that his second and presumably far more virtuous/compatible wife Candace (played by Regina Hall), who also works as HIS FUND-RAISING CHAIR for his School / Foundation "had a past" as well.  A 10-15 year old video had recently appeared on the Internet with her looking like she was prostituting herself at a late-1990s "white boy" Frat Party.  The person who had brought this to his attention had been a major donor to his school/foundation.


So then, the group gets together...  Lance can't stand Harper but puts up with him for the sake of his wife Mia.  Harper, in turn, knows that Lance is still really angry at him (for reasons that we're reminded of eventually) BUT HE NEEDS HIM to save him and his wife/family.

Shelby's there to cause as much trouble to Julian as possible even as Julian has a really complicated problem to "disarm" that could blow-up both his work and his marriage.

And even Jordon, with other things in her life (ie white-boyfriend Brian) comes to the event thrown by her former best friend Mia in good part out of a sense of guilt (toward Mia, "why have we gotten so far apart?") and obligation (toward Harper ... who she thinks she can help by buttering up Lance with regards to Harper's much needed book deal).

So why the heck did Lance and Mia invite all these people together to share such a clearly awkward "Holiday Weekend" together?  Well, the reason, which becomes clear in the second half of the film HONESTLY BLOWS ALL THESE PETTY ISSUES AWAY and honestly makes this film FAR BETTER than I EVER EXPECTED IT TO BE.


This is an EXCELLENT FILM FOR ADULTS, PARENTS, MARRIED COUPLES.  It is really about what one really believes about EVERYTHING that ought to be important in life (FAMILY, FRIENDS and YES ... ultimately GOD) and then about being both INVITED and yes, at times, CHALLENGED TO "walk the walk."

Even with regard to Candace and her "little incident" put-up on the internet ... there is a story there, and yes, people do dumb things.  AND IF WE BELIEVE ... WE OUGHT TO BE CAPABLE OF FORGIVING THEM especially when it is SO PATENTLY OBVIOUS THAT EITHER THIS WAS A ONE-TIME THING OR THAT THE PERSON HAS SINCE UTTERLY CHANGED.

Honestly, what a film!

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Siberian Exile (orig. Syberiada Polska) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R) (7/10)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing* (R.Oświeciński) review* (J. Demiańczuk) review* (M. Sochoń) review* (K. Rutkowski) review* (P. Zaremba) review*

Siberian Exile (orig. Syberiada Polska) [2013] [IMDb] []*(directed by Janusz Zaorski [IMDb] []*, screenplay by Michał Komar [IMDb] []* and Maciej Dutkiewicz [IMDb] []*, based on the novel (PL-orig) (FR-trans) by Zbigniew Domino [Amazon] [Wikip-PL]*) played recently at the 25th Polish Film Festival in America held in Chicago between Nov 8-24, 2013.
The film, the first feature film of its kind, tells the story of the Poles (according to the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum as many as 2,000,000) who had been living in the part of pre-WW II Poland that was occupied by the Soviet Union (as part of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany) who were then deported by the Soviets East to Kazakhstan and Siberia beginning in February, 1940. (The infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact created a very temporary peace between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, allowed Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to divide Poland between them, and finally allowed Nazi Germany to safely begin World War II with the invasion of Poland without fear of creating a two front war).

I personally buried a 95-year-old parishioner here at Annunciata Parish in Chicago, IL a couple of years ago who along with her family had been among those Poles who were deported.   And I was friends a number years ago over Facebook with a young ethnic Lithuanian from Siberia whose family had been deported there when the same fate came to hundreds of thousands of citizens from the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia following their occupation by Soviet Union (also as part of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).

Further, present at the screening of the film, held at Facets Multimedia in Chicago as part 25th Annual Polish Film Festival in America, were not only the film's director Janusz Zaorski [IMDb] []* but also members of several local Chicago families whose Polish parents and grandparents had been part of these deportations as well.  Director Zaorski [IMDb] []* shared after the screening that he made the movie in good part to honor family members who had been among the hundreds of thousands to perhaps millions of Poles deported in this manner.  All this is to say that this is a remarkably important film, again the first of its kind to tell this story of enormous suffering, betrayal and ultimately resilience on the part of the Poles who suddenly found themselves part of the Soviet Union.

The director shared that he filmed this film, with a largely Polish (from Poland) cast IN SIBERIA in and around Krasnoyarsk, the Russian-Siberian city that later became famous for its role in Soviet technological development and its space program) using at times Siberian extras and that the _premiere_ was held in Krasnoyarsk as well, to an audience which turned out to be largely composed of descendants of those hundreds of thousands to several million Polish deportees. The director related to us, attending the screening at Facets in Chicago, that the end of that first screening in Krasnoyarsk, the ethnic Poles present stood-up and sang the Polish national anthem.  Present also at that premiere had been apparently a descendant of one of the NKVD (Stalin era secret-police) prison guards who proceeded to tell the director that his film was "a package of lies" and that the only true sentence of dialogue in the entire film was that of the NKVD camp commandant declaring to one of the Polish deportees that "[he] hated all Poles."  Needless to say, that was one heck of premiere of one heck of a film.

The film itself then ... tells the story of a Polish family that had been living in a village in Eastern pre-WW II Poland prior to the outbreak of war.

The film begins with two yound teenagers, Staś Dolina (played by Paweł Krucz [IMDb] []*) and Cynia (played by Agnieszka Więdłocha [IMDb] []*) doing what a couple of young teenagers, living in the countryside, in love (mostly with life, but also clearly at least partly with each other) could be expected to do ... on a beautiful late summer's day (Sept 1, 1939...): Running along a lovely little pond in the midst the fields and forests of rural Poland (the countryside could have easily been rural Wisconsin or rural Bohemia where my dad's family is originally from) they decide to jump-in.  Modesty of the time (and honestly, modesty of any time) keeps them at least partly clothed (they jump-in in their underwear).  YET, THIS IS NOT AN ORDINARY SUNNY LATE-SUMMER'S DAY ... when they surface, they see a German Skuka dive-bomber dropping a bomb and destroying a nearby and probably previously in the minds of these two kids UTTERLY INCONSEQUENTIAL WOODEN BRIDGE.  World War II has arrived.

The next scene takes place on Sept 17, 1939.  Here the day is cloudy and the peace of the village where Staś and Cynia are from is broken that morning by the buzz of now Soviet aircraft (bi-planed) dropping leaflets and the entry of the Soviet Army (mostly by foot, with the commander on horseback) with a tape-recorded message blaring though a megaphone set on a horse-drawn cart telling the citizenry "Don't be alarmed.  The Invincible Red Army of the Soviet Union has arrived to 'liberate you' from the oppression of the rich peasants who exploit you."  Staś and Cynia's families, though by no means rich, apparently owned fields ...

The third scene takes place in the dead of night, on Feb 10, 1940.  The NKVD comes on horseback and with sleds.   Soviet soldiers / NKVD pound on most of the villagers' doors, waking them up and give them 15 minutes to pack belongings and tell them that they are being moved.  Where?  Not a clue ... but certainly somewhere bad.

The next scene takes place at a train station, the town's name already written in Cyrillic.  Both Staś and Cynia's families are packed on box-cars (along with most of the other families from the village) and ... in the subsequent scene they are shown being transported by foot / sled across OTHERWISE STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL IF SNOW-COVERED FORESTED COUNTRYSIDE somewhere in Siberia arriving at barracked, somewhat barbwire-fenced, camp with a Communist Era "Red and Gold" banner draped across the entrance declaring "Welcome Polish Deportees."  The story now begins ...

Where the heck are they?  Who knows.  Yes, it becomes clear in the film that they have an idea of the towns and cities that they passed and therefore pretty much the (in general) district that they find themselves in.  But basically they're in a barracked, somewhat barbwired camp SOMEWHERE some fairly long distance from some Siberian town (In the original book, apparently they found themselves somewhere near Lake Baikal and therefore somewhere in the region of Irkutsk).

Interestingly, "security" wasn't portrayed as particularly harsh.  It didn't have to be ... where the heck would one run to if one tried to run away?

The basic rule was set-down quickly by the camp's NKVD Commandant named Savin (played by Andrey Zhurba  [IMDb] []*): "To eat, you must work."

Work doing what?  Chopping trees.  (The Polish deportees found themselves in the middle of the Siberian Taiga, forest that went on for hundreds, indeed thousands, of miles in pretty much every direction)  How many trees?  Basically "a lot."  The quota appeared to be unclear and certainly arbitrary. 

What seemed clear was that everyone needed to be seen working hard chopping and sawing wood, even those who NORMALLY wouldn't be doing so: women (sometimes even pregnant women) and children.  AND there was no particular concern on the part of the Commandant / NKVD if anyone fell sick or for that matter even tried to run away.

In the film, Staś' mom Antonnia (played by Urszula Grabowska [IMDb] []*) falls ill with typhus as the first winter turns into spring.  The camp's doctor flatly tells the family "there's no medicine" and has her simply "rest" (for weeks... until she "gets better," or ... dies) in the infirmary.    Staś' father, Jan (played by Adam Woronowicz [IMDb] []*) then tries to leave the camp in search of medicine.  Where?  How?  Interestingly, the camp's Commandant doesn't particularly care that Jan goes missing, apparently for several days.  Again, there was really NO PLACE TO RUN (AWAY) TO.  And if Jan somehow came back with medicine, THAT DIDN'T MATTER TO HIM EITHER.  BECAUSE WHETHER JAN OR ANTONNIA (or their kids, or ANY OF THE OTHER DEPORTEES AT THE CAMP) LIVED OR DIED DIDN'T MATTER ... there'd be plenty of other Poles from Soviet Occupied Eastern Poland that could be deported TO REPLACE THEM.  And if, conceivably, the Soviet Union "ran out of Poles" well, there'd be deportable Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Chechens, Tatars (the list goes on ...) all soon existing in similar camps to replace them as well.  (Previous to WW II, those camps were filled with deported Kulaks (rich Russian peasants) and Ukrainians ... until the Soviet Union largely ran out of deportable Kulaks and Ukrainians).

All that seemed to matter to the Commandant/NKVD was that NOTHING beyond "making the quota" occurred in the camp.  So, eventually Cynia and her father (interestingly, it becomes clear as the film progresses that they are Jewish, while Staś' family was Catholic) get removed from the Camp to, presumably a more punitive camp elsewhere.  Why?  Because they were caught teaching the kids in the camp a little about Polish history.  

So how long was this to go on -- with life reduced to simply "Making the Quota," "Not Getting Sick" and "Not being caught thinking/talking about anything (substantial) else?"  NO ONE KNEW (not even the Commandant).  Quite possibly FOREVER.   And in that, of course, was the horror.  

To the film's credit, the film isn't solely about "suffering Poles" vs "Evil (Soviet) Russians.  Most most of the Russians portrayed were portrayed as sincere Russian patriots / sincere believers in Stalinist Communism.  Indigenous (non/pre-Russian settlement) people formed part of the story (one saves Staś' father Jan's life) as do others in Siberia as a result of previous waves of deportations.  In particular, the Camp doctor's daughter, a nurse named Lyubka (played by Valeria Gouliaeva [IMDb] []*) is portrayed as really a kind soul.  She makes sure that Staś' mom Antonnia gets treated well (at least given her rest) and she tells the Dolina family that she (and presumably her father) had been deported from Leningrad to Siberia some (fair number of) years before.  Does she miss Leningrad?  She tells the Dolina's that she hardly remembers it any more.  There's also a Ukrainian guard who falls in love and against the Commandant's wishes marries one of the Polish inmate/deportees Irena (played by Sonia Bohosiewicz [IMDb] []*).  Interestingly, he's allowed to marry her even if the Commandant was against it... yup, it was a very strange and seemingly arbitrary system. 

So how long did this go on?  Well, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.  Then Stalin, certainly Evil but ever a pragmatist, found better uses for Poles (besides having them just chop wood until they eventually died at random camps in Siberia): He needed them as soldiers.  And the Poles were certainly willing to fight against Germans FOR POLAND.  So the camp was soon closed and everybody (inmates, guards, hospital/supporting staff) was allowed to go to whatever city they were near (again in the book it would be Irkutsk) and the men were allowed to go off to war.

AS THE END OF THE WAR APPROACHED, the Polish deportees were GIVEN THE OPTION (though HIGHLY DISCOURAGED FROM DOING SO) to return to what would be "west-shifted" post-WWII Poland.  The Dolinas seek to exercise their option to return home.  Much still ensues, and ... (SPOILER ALERT... though I've already written about most of the film already...) THEY MAKE IT BACK.

During the discussion following the screening of the film, the director noted that of the Poles deported to Siberia in this way (according to the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum as many as 2,000,000), 1/3 died, another 1/3 remained in Siberia or otherwise never returned to Poland and 1/3 did return to Poland.

What a story!

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